TO MARRY A MOCKINGBIRD? by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
I jumped from the dinghy into the warm water of the Pacific and waded up to the beach. The sun shone down on the white sand of the Island. This was Day Four of my retirement gift to myself – a trip to the Galapagos Islands. For a week I lived aboard a ship visiting most of the larger islands. The naturalists in the group came up the beach loaded with binoculars and cameras. Myself, I carried a small pocket camera; I wouldn’t call myself a naturalist.
This morning our captain had announced that our ship needed to be re-fueled. Passengers were not allowed on board during re-fueling so he would leave us to explore a nearby island for a few hours.
Great! Abandoned on a desert island! Another item off my bucket list. Why hadn’t I paid more attention when I read Robinson Crusoe? My delight in the abstract idea of being abandoned on a desert island faded somewhat as I watched our ship heading out towards the horizon. In the light of reality, it became a more frightening concept. The boat would be coming back, wouldn’t it?
The naturalist who came ashore with us allowed no time for worrying. While the sea lions were still huffing off, offended at our intrusion, he showed us the sat. phone, a first aid kit, water and snacks. He pointed to a steep hill some distance away and said several species of rare birds, including this island’s rather rare mockingbird, could be seen near the top of this hill if anyone cared to make the hike. All the naturalists nodded eagerly. Only a couple of us elected to stay behind to relax on the beach. We promised to stay out of the sun and not to leave the area.
Off the birders went with their binoculars and cameras and most of the snacks. Linda, the other woman staying behind, and I agreed on the benefits of solitude. She set off to the south where sea lions were abundant. I turned north to where some thick bushes promised shelter from the sun. My plan was to catch up on my neglected trip diary.
I made myself a comfortable hollow in the sand resting my back on thick stems of the bushes and began to write. It was going well – I was remembering details, my pen travelling rapidly across the page until I heard a rustling in the leaves above me and became aware of a brown bird with a slightly curved beak regarding me with an accusing eye.
A mockingbird. Why wasn’t it high on the hilltop to greet the real naturalists? I wondered if his nest was down here. Perhaps I was an intruder in these bushes. I looked around and couldn’t see a nest. Maybe they just hollowed out the sand for a nest, much like I had done. Could I be sitting on it? I rolled to one side to look. No, no nest, no flattened egg shells. Still the accusing eye.
I studied the bird, wondering if indeed this was what everyone had hiked off to see. He still stared steadily at me. Somewhat disconcerted I politely told him that I knew this was his territory and added something trite about coming in peace.
To my surprise the accusing look disappeared, and he hopped down to a closer branch. He might not understand English but perhaps he liked the sound of my voice. Maybe no-one had ever spoken to him before.
So quietly, gently I explained the re-fueling, the group, my holiday, my diary. Head on one side he looked at me as if assessing the veracity of my story. Finished explaining, I went back to writing. Again a rustle and he was within a couple of feet of me watching my pen travel across the page. After several minutes he flew off. I supposed that the fascination of watching a moving pen had its limits.
Five minutes later he was back with a tiny shell in his beak, possibly a snail. He dropped it beside me. I picked it up and examined it, wondering what I was supposed to do with it. He spent a few moments looking at me, looking at the shell. Something was expected of me, but what?
He flew off again and was gone so long that I thought he must have given up on this strange visitor who did not know what to do with a perfectly good snail.
Ten minutes later he returned with something green twitching in his beak. He stared at me for a moment, head on one side. Then he dropped down to the sand beside me and with theatrical flourishes regurgitated one, two, three partially-digested but still moving green bugs. Hopping back on his branch he began preening his wing feathers.
I may not be a naturalist, but I recognize mating behavior when I see it. Interesting to observe, but un-nerving when I was expected to reciprocate. How does one respond to an amorous mockingbird? What was I supposed to do with half-digested green bugs? Bugs that might be the equivalent of champagne and caviar?
Thanking him politely, even profusely, I turned back to my writing, watching him out of the corner of my eye. He began collecting sticks, dropping them haphazardly beside the green bugs. Every now and then he looked up at me meaningfully.
I began to contemplate having a mockingbird as a mate. Lovely climate, beautiful beach, but the diet? Yuck! I went back yet again to my writing, disregarding the growing litter of sticks and the green bugs that now lay still.
Eventually my suitor grew tired of this perverse female and disappeared. I reflected on how lucky I’d been, not just to squint at a bird on a branch through binoculars but to interact with it for almost an hour.
Later the naturalists returned, hot and tired. “We didn’t see the mockingbird,” they said.