The universal, interspecies Bird Alarm System works like this: A big bird–hawk, crow, eagle, vulture, terradactyl (I assume, once, when dinosaurs flew!!)–takes an interest in something that a smaller bird who owns that something surely wishes he wouldn’t. But a lot of times the not-yet-victimized smaller bird is away somewhere. He’s off … being a bird. He’s not home.
And that’s when the Bird Alarm System kicks in to alert that bird, wherever he is, to the fact that a larger, scarier bird is making eyes at his digs.
Here’s how I discovered the BAS: I’d be sitting at the edge of this many-acres-huge meadow in (as I’ve said, I know) the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. An ocean of wildflowers. Gorgeous! And way across the meadow, I’d see a large bird start circling around a tree. Or really almost just show up at all. And instantly everything across the meadow would go silent. That’s usually how I knew an un-cute Big Bird had entered the scene. One moment seemingly every bird in the universe is making so much noise I can barely hear myself trying to come up with anything to think about–and the next it’s so quiet you could hear banana slugs not racing.
Then I go, “Oops. Big Bird’s a callin’.” And then I’d look up, and there would be Joe Shadow Caster, drifting around in the silent sky. And, amongst the trillion birds then apparently watching the big bird, mum would remain the word.
And then–and always from within the trees very near the Dennis the Menace bird–would issue forth the perfectly clarion call of a single smaller bird–a jay, mockingbird, robin, sparrow, starling … it could be any one of them. (Interesting Bird Note: The type of bird that began the Alarm Cry always did the exact same call. A jay sounding the alarm would always do the same Jay Alarm Call–as would a robin, etc. I think this proves once and for all that birds talk to each other. If you are a member of the McArthur Genius Awards committee, please email me so that I can tell you where to send my check.)
So I’d hear that solo call, right? And it might come from all the way across the meadow. And then, half-way across the meadow–say, coming towards me–I’d hear one other bird. Could be the same kind of bird as the first one, could be a different kind. But it, alone, would again call out.
And then I’d hear another bird do a single call, right near me. And then I’d hear another one way off in the distance behind me.
And I’d realize that about a mile of signaling just got covered, in a matter of seconds.
And sure enough, from the direction the last alarm had been signaled, some bird would come winging out onto the field, heading right toward Mr. Wingspan. And then it was on. You know how aggressive little birds can be, how mockingbirds or blackbirds will seriously harrass hawks or ravens in the air. So that little bird would start doing whatever it could to persuade the big bird to go pick on someone else’s property–and the moment it started doing that, all the other birds would start screaming like chimpanzees. Suddenly you’d go deaf it had grown so loud.
Of course, I never noticed any of the other crazed spectator birds coming out of their trees to actually help the little Defender Bird–but they were definitely into it. (And, actually, sometimes other birds did come out to help a little–to wing the big bird, or sort of jab at him as he tried to retreat. Pretty cool! Unless you’re the big bird.)
So that’s how it went. Silence; a string of single calls over amazing distances (sometimes so far they’d actually go beyond my hearing); single Bird to the Rescue.
I, attempting to look into a nest that I was sure was abandoned, was about half-way up a tree–maybe nine, ten feet off the ground–when I heard that first bird call.