If you’re like me, certain of the more vocal local birds, those with individually distinctive songs, gain nicknames as the breeding season unfolds. The song sparrow that sings outside my bedroom window in the morning has come to be called Chicken Legs, due to the fact that its melody reminds me of one W.C. Fields sings in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (“The chickens have pretty legs in Kaaan-saaas“). And The Nut is the robin who takes up position in the dogwood tree out front at dusk; his crepuscular ranting is a notch up the hysterical scale from the usual variegated warbling of a Turdus migratorius from central casting.
Then there was The Hungarian.
The Hungarian was the male house finch who greeted me every morning from the spindly London plane sapling several doors down from my office on West 52nd Street. His song was markedly more garrulous and operatic than those of his more sanguine brethren, so much so that I was able to pick him out of the crowd three years running.
What it was about his voluble song that led me to christen him “The Hungarian,” I have no idea. But, hey, it’s a nickname; it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
I’d stop most mornings to whistle back for a moment, and would definitely get a rise out of him. He’d hop down until we were only about two feet away from each other. Having said our hellos, I’d move on up the block to wade knee-deep into the mundanity du jour.
One day last October, when a sharp tang of winter was in the breeze for the first time that autumn, I was at my desk and found myself pulled up short by a house finch call. It was unnaturally loud, so much so that I assumed my coworkers were pranking me; I’d been regaling them with tales of The Hungarian most mornings, and it was a film-making company, with lots of playback equipment. Besides, we were eight floors up, lofty strata for the likes of a finch.
But, dang, that sounded exactly like The Hungarian.
I followed the sound to a corner office. No co-workers, no playback equipment. A house finch. On the window’s edge, half inside. On the eighth floor. Facing in.
We stared at each other for a moment. He sang a familiarly garrulous and operatic song, and flew off. Exactly whom that bird was I, of course, couldn’t say with any certainty, but I never saw The Hungarian again after that.
Noooooo, no, no. I am NOT suggesting that “my little friend came to say goodbye.” I’m not suggesting anything at all. Just reporting the facts as I observed them. Just the facts, ma’am.
But for those of us—like me and, probably, you—apt to listen and to ponder, the absence of bird song can be as thought-provoking as its presence. Did The Hungarian find a different block to call home this spring? Was he bullied from his customary digs, maybe even by his own offspring? Or did he meet with his demise—a window strike, as someone’s delicious prey, or for what passes for old age in his world?
Perhaps Chicken Legs and The Nut will be gone next spring; two infinitesimal specks vanished into the white noise cacophony of the natural order.
About the Author
Filmmaker and birder Jason Kessler's award-winning films, including "Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at The World Series of Birding" have been seen on PBS and the BBC. He also sheepishly confesses to being responsible for the "Sh*t Birders Say" series of shorts as seen on The Youtubes, but hopes that you won't hold this against him.