Among the leaves the small birds sing

My Chief Newfoundland Correspondent (I hadn’t mentioned the appointment yet: I hope he is not unduly alarmed) writes about prayer, among the birds. Or rather, he asked a question of my purple finches, who are at last back in force from wherever, exploiting the sunflower generosity of the High Doganate. He asked if they, or the other birds pray, as they seem to do in his neighbourhood of Saint John’s (where, I gather, he is a physical oceanographer). The birds in his backyard conflate into song about one hour before sunrise, in the first light of the morning dusk.

“A gentle sound, not the rough ‘caw’ of our crows, nor the frantic chirps of small nesting birds as they attempt to fill their noisy children. It would be pleasant to believe that they are thanking God for life.”

It is the same in Parkdale. I have often noticed the choir is preceded by a single voice, intoning the invitatory Psalm. And then the full gallery of songbirds, in all their species, sing Lauds from each his tiny loft. The sound is unmistakable: of joy in being alive.

My swallows are back, too, only recently from the Amazon, or somewhere I think in southern Venezuela where the Ante-Parkdale may be found in the northern winter. They seem not to tire from their twice-annual, heroic journeying; nor to have suffered from the inevitable collapse of the Venezuelan economy after the introduction of socialism there, where only the human beings despair. The birds are above it.

My hearing is not so fine that I can distinguish any chirping from them within the Lauds; I think they wait until just after, to fly out in their squadrons, and feast on the early morning bugs — nattering away to each other where they find the midge-clouds thickest.

Alas, since last fall, the municipal authorities have taken out a beautiful old iron bridge over the railway, the underside of which was among the swallows’ largest hotels. It was targeted as unnecessarily quaint and lovely, banked on one side into a natural shade garden; it will be replaced with something better engineered to express the vicious ugliness in the soul of contemporary man. I daresay the demolition men were cursing at all the old swallow nests.

But my swallows, like my finches, and my sparrows, will survive. They find other hotels, and do not even bother to plague the city switchboard with their complaints.

In the spring, I have learnt, through the month of May, many million birds pass over Greater Parkdale in a single night, returning to their northern abodes. Along the Lakeshore, just now, one may see the flocks of whimbrel, en route to Hudson’s Bay and the Keewatin. They wade, and poke about in the dirty sands, with their down-curved beaks; then, on seeing a man too close, alert their friends with a rippling whistle. I know they are feeding, but in a moment it seemed all their heads bowed together, as if in acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity. Then being noticed, they took fear and flew off.

(I cannot say that I understand whimbrels. Approach a nest, I am told, and the parents will come at your face in a way that makes redwing blackbirds seem willing to compromise. But gathered in a mob they are meek and skittish. This is quite the opposite of the human propensities.)

Only, perhaps, a few hundred thousand among the songbirds have selected Inner Parkdale for their summer homes. Ovenbirds and juncos, warblers and thrushes, flickers and sapsuckers and chickadees, may be spotted in the quiet of the ravines; fox sparrows, song sparrows, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, lincolns, white-throats, savannahs, are to be counted among the “small brown jobs” of High Park and its vicinity; each a tiny squeezebox of music; enough to remind all those unstunted of the Joy of their Creator.

I am no authority on this. I cannot tell if all the Liturgical Hours are observed. I have no confidence, either, in my powers of identification, for I am no birder. I deal only with the obvious.

Without anything tantamount to human knowledge, they are praying for us.