WILD THINGS: THESE BIRDS ARE MESSING WITH ME
It’s not often that an animal messes with you just for the fun of it.
Stuart, my half pit bull, used to do it. If you took him for a walk up the Keys, he would sometimes find a really long stick, balance it in his mouth, run up behind you and hit you in the back of the legs with it. Then he would stand there with a kind of Fozzie Bear look on his face, like it was the funniest thing in the world. (He did this once with an 8-foot two-by-four. Hilarious.)
A couple years ago I was out in my boat and saw a pod of dolphins. I cut the engine to just watch them for a while, and they went into full-on magical sea creature mode, leaping out of the water, doing jumps and flips and all that acrobatic stuff dolphins do. They kept getting closer to the boat until one of them leaped toward it and did this high half-somersault, so the top of his flukes slapped the water a couple feet away from the stern, sending a perfect and inescapable wave across the boat, soaking me and everything on it, including the new GPS. It was such a precise move, there was no way it wasn’t deliberate.
Lately I’ve had my suspicions about a black-whiskered vireo in our neighborhood. Considering that humans rarely know what’s in the hearts and minds of other humans, much less their own hearts and minds, it’s probably unreasonable to believe that a black-whiskered vireo knows what’s in mine, and is using that secret knowledge to mess with me. But still.
We’ve lived in our house for close to 10 years, and during that time I’ve heard black-whiskered vireos calling all over the neighborhood, sometimes near, sometimes far. It’s usually a four- or five-note sequence. To me, it sounds like a two-note question, followed by a two- or three-note answer. And it’s not one of those wan, delicate, songbird songs. Each note is a shot of espresso, or more accurately, a shot of bucce or cafecito, since the species breeds across the Caribbean and winters in northern South America. It sounds a bit like a mockingbird would if they were into that whole brevity thing.
Despite their loud and strong call, they can be hard to spot. They like to sing from deep in the leaves, coming off as disembodied voices in the treetops. I’m not proud of this, and it wasn’t ethical, but once, when I was leading a tour of people who really wanted to see a black-whiskered vireo, there was one singing high up in a tall, skinny tree. I tried pishing (which is imitating a bird call) to draw it out, and when that didn’t work, I used a playback of the bird’s call. Nothing. Finally, I walked up to the tree and shook it rather vigorously a couple times, thinking it would make the bird fly off so everyone could get a look. The bird didn’t move, just held its ground and kept right on singing.
You usually can catch sight of black-whiskered vireos when they’re foraging, hopping from branch to branch in search of fruit and insects. They’re not the flashiest of birds – a beige-ish brown-gray with a slate-y gray cap and eye stripe. But their elusiveness and their quick movements give them a cachet. That and their nominal black whiskers, which make them look a bit like an avian version of Lemmy from Motörhead.
Their Cuban name is Bien-te-veo, which translates roughly to you-look-good. Some sources say the name is a mnemonic – kind of like the way an olive-sided flycatcher’s call is supposed to sound like “quick, three beers” in English. Though with their extroverted furtiveness, calling a bird “you-look-good” also makes a kind of sense.
Why do I want them to nest in our mahogany tree? They’ve been moving around the edge of my life for a long time. I guess I just want to have more chances to see a bird I hear so often, to watch their comings and goings, to hear the weird little sounds their hungry hatchlings make.
How are they messing with me? For the last two weeks at least one of them has been flying into the mahogany, singing for five or 10 minutes, then going quiet.
Birds generally sing for two reasons – to stake out turf and to attract a mate. It’s really early in the season, so the male should be singing his head off to either advertise the wonders of himself and his territory to a female. And if he found a female that said, “Sure, let’s do this,” he should be singing his head off to make it clear to other males that this is his territory, stay the (heck) out. This little routine of singing for a few minutes and going quiet seems disingenuous. And it’s not the first year that he – or one of his cohorts – has done this.
For a while I was thinking maybe he had a big territory and was ranging around it, singing in its far-flung corners. But I looked it up and black-whiskered vireos tend to sing within 75 feet of their nests, so if he was doing that, he would be 150 feet away at most. Even if he was atypical and doubled his range, he’d only be 300 feet away – still well within the block. And I would definitely be able to hear him.
So I don’t know what’s going on. I’m trying very hard not to take it personally. But if a couple of black-whiskered vireos would just nest in our mahogany tree, all will be forgiven.