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Terez Mertes

Serenade for violin and finch

May 13, 2008 at 3:26 AM

It is Saturday, amid the drowsy warmth of a sunny California afternoon, and my family and I are doing our respective family things. My husband is in the office, tapping away at the computer while my son Jonathan putters about in the playroom, pausing from time to time to take his play outside. I am upstairs practicing on the violin. A soft breeze from the open windows sends forth fragrant puffs of pine-baked air. Outside next to our patio are pines and manzanita trees that house birds who come to drink at our bird bath. Beyond the patio stretches the San Lorenzo Valley, flanked by tiers of redwoods that rise high into the sky to form the coastal mountain range.

I am practicing a Bach minuet, having recorded the second voice so I can duet with myself. Me and myself, we’re sounding okay. Nice, even. Apparently I am not the only one to think so.

When I hear the whistle from outside I assume it’s Jonathan and one of the whistles he must take outside because it is so loud. But the sound persists beyond Jonathan’s normal attention span. Curious, I pause the recorded Terez and peer around the partition that separates my practice corner from the rest of the room. Through the open screened window I see the source of the noise. It’s not a whistle. It’s a finch (or a finch-like bird). He is on the bedroom’s balcony railing. He is whistling. Loudly.

Birds have perched on the balcony railing before; they have twittered and whistled before flying off. But it has never been like this. He is focused, intent, as he whistles straight at me. His eyes are unblinking, as if he has a message that he must get right, that there will be no second chances for him here.

The finch is serenading me. Well, my violin. Or surely it is the ineffable clarity and beauty of Bach. No matter. He continues to sing out in my direction in that clear, oh-so-loud whistle. I begin to play short phrases in response to him, not daring to break the spell by going back to the music on its stand in my practice corner. I fudge it. He doesn’t seem to mind. I play, he listens, head cocked, then sings back.

It is charming, miraculous. It reminds me of the scene in Shrek where Princess Fiona is singing so beautifully that a bluebird flies over and begins to duet with her. Granted, once Fiona hits a clinker note, the bird, unable to reproduce such a horrific sound, blows up, blue feathers wafting downward. This does not happen to me and my finch partner. I am grateful.

This goes on for over fifteen seconds, a wondrously long time when you’ve got a wild creature singing to you. Then the finch, spying the adjacent picture glass window, flies over to it and bumps into it. He wants to get in. He must get in. He must meet this beloved. He bumps his head against the glass a second time, a third time, before finally accepting the intransigence of the glass. Then he flies away.

I stare at the space long after his departure, transfixed by what has just occurred. Then I run downstairs, crying for my family to come here, come here, there was a bird and he was singing to me. They follow me upstairs in a bemused fashion and I begin to feel a little foolish as I try to explain the impact of it, the magic. And then the finch comes back. “Look!” I cry and as if on command, he begins to whistle again as I play again. An encore performance. Then, like the shy little performer he is, he flits away soon after.

I tell my husband and son the rest, how the finch tried to get into the room, to which my husband responded in the pragmatic fashion that defines him, that the bird merely saw his own reflection and was trying to get closer to his exotic twin. The rationale makes sense to the logical mind. But I know in my heart that the finch just had to get closer to the music. That magic sound, of violin and Bach.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 10:37 AM
Amazing! What a wonderful story. But would it help to put something on the window like a little bird cutout so birds don't fly into it? Poor little guy.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 12:29 PM
Aw, that is so cute. Around here, a pair of purple finches have settled, and they seem to feel the need to make running commentary on my practicing. The male cardinal also makes his presence known, and the mockingbird will throw in her two cents too. But the most noisy are the cowbirds!

There is no problem here with the birds flying into the windows though. Maybe that has something to do with the cats constantly in the windowsills, staring at "Cat TV"!

I use a basic Peterson Field Guide to identify birds: "Birds of Eastern and Central North America". I bet you can get a decent California-specific, or western edition. It is nice to find out exactly what kind of critic/duet partner you are dealing with...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 1:32 PM
>Maybe that has something to do with the cats constantly in the windowsills, staring at "Cat TV"!

Oh, that's funny! Thanks for the tip on the field guide - I Googled around on Sunday, looking for a photo of the bird I saw, b/c he is still so clear in my mind, but I never found it. A field guide will do the trick.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 1:34 PM
>But would it help to put something on the window like a little bird cutout so birds don't fly into it?

Karen - in ten years of living there, it has never happened (to that window) before. It's in a hard to reach spot (second floor, away from balcony), so we'll probably let it go. Maybe I should open the screen window instead, next time I play Bach. : )

From Karin Lin
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 5:03 PM
Loved this!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 5:11 PM
Karin - thanks, and "loved it" right back atcha for your last blog post (that was archived before I could reply). Your daughter's quartet idea was just hilarious. : ) So cute.
From Theresa Martin
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 7:43 PM
What a lovely experience!

It reminds me of a time when a friend was playing for a group of chickens (okay--it only sortof reminds me--your story was lovely; this one was just silly). But they were TOTALLY responding to her--getting all worked up and squawking rhythmically and flapping their wings. They never tired of it either. All of us spectators laughed ourselves silly, and I'd NEVER seen chickens so alert and focused.

Too bad my dog is mostly indifferent (kids too, for that matter).

From Jay Azneer
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 8:30 PM
Beautiful story!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 13, 2008 at 8:48 PM
What a charming story! I most certainly hope that your husband was wrong.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 14, 2008 at 3:42 AM
Jay and Corwin, thanks! And Theresa, your chicken story is just HILARIOUS. That's one I'll reread.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 14, 2008 at 4:02 AM
That's a fascinating story, beautifully told. If you lived on the East Coast, I would say that the bird had to be a mockingbird. I'm glad the bird came back to validate your story to husband and son. Your description of the landscape is beautiful, too. In addition to the Peterson Field Guide, I recommend the Audubon Society's field guides. What a wonderful experience you had!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 14, 2008 at 5:13 AM
I totally love this story, Terez. I even love your husband's idea about the narcissistic bird, who is really just in love with its own we humans ever do that? ;)
From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on May 14, 2008 at 11:40 AM
Aw! That's so awesome!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 14, 2008 at 4:50 PM
Thanks, Pauline, Natasha and Laurie! Pauline, we do get mockingbirds here, but wouldn't it have tried to imitate the sound? Or do mockingbirds just sort of file away their repertoire and practice the new ones on off hours. (That's a hilarious image in my mind. But I DO love the way mockingbirds can sing so many different tunes.) And thanks for the field guide suggestion.

Laurie - loved the comment on the narcissism. Confession time: I practice in front of a mirror at least 50% of the time. Only to observe if I've got correct form, mind you! (And to be humbled by the sight of my double chin on the chinrest... ugh!)

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