Friday, June 06, 2014

Birds on My Mind

Odd that Donis should have posted yesterday about an elegant physics experiment involving a cat in a sealed box just when I was thinking about the robin who has built her nest under my front door awning. I think about that robin every time I leave or enter my house because if she is on her nest, she retreats to a safe distance. This means that until she and her offspring depart, I am going to feel rude and inconsiderate every time I have to disturb her.

I have to confess – not knowing the nesting habits of robins – I was surprised when I realized she was building a nest beside my door. What sensible bird would fail to take into account that a noisy human would be going in and out. But, apparently, she finds my daytime intrusions (she ignores me at night) less of an issue than wind storms and neighborhood cats and whatever else mother robins take into account when selecting a spot for their nests. I know this now because I took to Google to see if anyone else had found a robin nesting within touching distance. A number of people had.

That was when I also discovered that if I had torn down the nest while she was building it, I would have been violating a federal law. Robins are among the birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Someone brought this up when someone else on a discussion board complained that he had been menaced by an angry mother robin. That got me thinking about menacing birds. Of course, I thought of Hitchcock's The Birds.

Just for the heck of it – when I should have been working on revisions due by June 15 – I decided to see what was in the university library databases about the film. I knew that Daphne Du Maurier's short story was the basis for the movie. Since I had never read the short story, I looked for a plot summary. That led me to spend more time than I should have reading an article about the horror story elements of Du Maurier's story. Those elements were in Hitchcock's film, but Du Maurier was unhappy that the director had relocated her story to sunny California. Her story set in Cornwall, in December, is a much grimmer tale. Instead of a handsome lawyer hero (Rod Taylor) and a beautiful blonde heroine (Tippi Hedren), Du Maurier's story is about a working-class Cornish family (a farmer, his wife, and two children). They and their neighbors find themselves under attack by massive flocks of birds. The story – based on the summary I've read – does not end with the hero and his family escaping by car during a lull in the attacks (as in the film).

But it seems that Hitchcock's choice of his California setting was inspired by a real-life incident in the summer of 1961. Disoriented seabirds were crashing into houses in Monterey Bay. According to reporter Dan Vergano (in a 2011 USA Today article), scientists now believe that the birds had been poisoned by "toxin-making algae" in plankton that caused "confusion, seizures, and death."  Remember that scene in the movie when a bird clashes into the door of the schoolteacher's house?

The robin nesting by my door seems quite healthy and has shown no sign of going on the warpath. I suspect she will soon ignore my comings and goings in the daytime as well as at night. But she has given me a theme for summer reading and movie watching.

I had given passing thought to birds after doing a book tour in North Carolina with Donna Andrews, whose series featuring amateur sleuth and blacksmith Meg Langslow has bird-inspired titles (e.g., Murder with Peacocks). I'd also read Margaret Maron's The Buzzard Table, in which her series protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott, and her police officer husband, encounter a man who has set up a feeding station for buzzards. Aside from being a good mystery, the book has some fascinating details about the eating habits of that particular scavenger.

I'm now getting flashbacks to that television show with Robert Blake as Detective Tony Baretta. Baretta had a cockatoo named Fred. Fred was never as famous as Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, but Fred did have personality. The theme song for the show was "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow" (performed by Sammy Davis, Jr.).

And I mustn't forget to mention Norman Bates' stuffed birds in the office of his motel. But it seems in the novel, Psycho, there was only one stuffed squirrel. Hitchcock preferred birds.

My detective, Hannah McCabe, has occasion to think of Norman's stuffed birds in the book I just finished. So it seems – given the fact there's a Cock Robin theme – I have already started down that bird path. I suspect that with the coywolves (coyote-wolf hybrids) who are going to be roaming about the city (Albany in 2020) in Book 3, there may be room for a few other animals. More birds? If live birds do flap their way into that book, I've have to remember to include the robin outside the door in my acknowledgments.

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post. Makes me think of looking out the window at birds. I spend a lot of time at a lake house in Wisconsin where I can watch the bald eagles fly over the lake from my writing desk. My imagination takes flight and soars with the eagles.