Saturday, September 20, 2014

Code Switching, the vertebrates edition

A few mornings ago, I was out early tending to the birds. Nearby stood one of our turkey hens; in particular, the hen who hatched a poult and two keets earlier in the summer. She was simply standing there among the weeds and flowers--as turkey hens spend much of their days--her young charges milling around about her feet in a busy bustle of chirping and squeaking.

Then she made a single sound, a sound I had heard many times before. When I usually hear this and see the response it evokes, it brings Coleridge to mind:
"We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!"*
I looked at her, and as I expected from hearing the sound she made, she had her head cocked sideways and was looking skyward. She had not moved a muscle, and her young had not moved in response to her noise, nor had any other of the fowl milling about the yard. I followed her gaze upwards. A lone great blue heron was flapping majestically in their distinctive diagonal path across the open backyard, just at treetop level. By this time, the hen had gone back to browsing on the seeds of the tall grass, ignoring the sky.

I knew what she had said. I understood what she had said. Her single noise was noting the presence of the heron, but at the same time, not sounding the alarm she as she would have if a hawk, eagle or other raptor or large bird had intruded. Had she voiced the same sound as an alarm, the young would have either run for cover or huddled beneath her, and all the other birds in the open would have found cover in an instant. But not in this case.

She communicated a simple comment, and I understood what she meant.


*Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Part the Third. 204-206

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