By Jim Hughes
From my office window which overlooks our driveway, I have been observing one pretty little bird's odd behavior for the past three weeks. From first light to dusk, it seems, he (I'm assuming the creature is a male, for reasons that will soon become obvious) can be seen darting between our Honda van, which mostly sits undriven and unloved, and our giant tangle of forsythia, which is immediately adjacent to the van's passenger side. First, he perches on the rubber sill outside the closed passenger-side window, seeming to peer inside. Then he hops forward, toward the side rearview mirror with its wideangle perspective. Soon, he...well, maybe the pictures tell the story best:
One day I decided to get a closer look at this fascinating little bird with what appeared to be obsessive-compulsive behavior problems. So I quietly slid into the driver's seat with my camera, and focused on the standard warning printed across the bottom of most right-side mirrors. At first I thought the bird, which looks to me like a sparrow (but I'm no expert), was peering at me. Eventually, I realized he was looking at his reflection in the window, which showed his own handsome profile in the mirror.
Seeming to work up some courage, the bird hops closer to the object of his desire, which I realize he has, in all likelihood, convinced himself is a potential mate (it was suddenly Spring, after all, up here in late-blooming Maine). Could it be, I wondered, that he sees his reflected self as an alluring female?
The bird offers his chosen love a close-up look and a peck on the beak. So far, so good...
...then shows himself to any and all competitors, and with a shrill song warns them off.
He makes his approach, and tries to fly into her world...
...only to realize that she has disappeared. Yet again.
This sequence, repeated over and over again, was photographed over the course of maybe an hour, with the photographer (me, cramped arms and all!) trying to remain absolutely still (and invisible to the bird) inside a closed and stifling car. The bird's odd behavior happened with lightning speed in constantly changing light. Camera was a Fuji X-E1; my lens was an antique 35mm (50mm-e) ƒ/2 Canon screw-mount RF.
The courtship ritual is still going on (I am watching it out my office window as I write), although, in evident frustration, the bird has expanded his efforts to now also include the mirrors on the Subaru parked next to the Honda (the latter's mirror is now all but obliterated by white bird poop, incidentally). I regret to say I am soon going to have to find a way to divert the bird's attention elsewhere, since the Honda will shortly be needed for runs to the town dump and the local supermarket, not necessarily in that order.
Perhaps I should call this series "a story of life in six frames."
For many years, Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35. Later, he was the founding editor of Mike J.'s all-time favorite photo magazine, the original Camera Arts. His books include the superb biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance—The Life and Work of an American Photographer, and the monograph Ernst Haas in Black and White. Retired now, he writes occasionally for TOP (see his other articles by finding his name in the "Categories" list in the right-hand sidebar). He lives in Maine.
©2014 by Jim Hughes, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Ranjit Grover: "This is a common sight here in the tropics. Not just one variety of bird, but several ones come here and peck at the mirrors in the breeding season. If you do not protect your mirrors they will one day break it. I have seen that happening. The birds are trying to frighten away potential rivals in the mating season. They cannot make out between a reflection and the real. They will peck at any reflective surface. The best way to protect the mirror is to cover it with a paper bag while you are not actually using the vehicle."
GKFroehlich: "Your bird is a Song Sparrow. The behavior you witnessed is actually fairly common, but it's almost certainly a territorial dispute between the male and an imagined would-be interloper. I've seen this behavior many, many times, involving species that are sexually dimorphic (i.e., the males and females have very different plumages). And it's always a male attacking a (presumed) competing male. In our sparrows, the Song Sparrow included, both sexes wear the same plumage, so your courting interpretation is understandable. Still, a nice story in six frames!"
Jim Hughes replies: The male vs. male territorial theory makes sense, and in fact I considered from the outset that explanation for my little bird's repetitive behavior. But after extensive close observation and reflection (could never resist a decent pun), I saw considerably more attraction than aggression. Besides, I am doubtless, as Mark Kirkpatrick notes, an incurable Romantic, at least in a Blakean sense, and when given a choice usually prefer Songs of Innocence over Songs of Experience.
That, and unrequited love generally makes the better story.
Shortly after sending this piece to Mike a few weeks back, I did notice in the local press a story about an evidently crazed raven that had attacked three cars in the town of Richmond, Maine, severely damaging rubber windshield gaskets and wipers in the process. (This followed the previous month's report of two goats clambering atop a car and doing some sort of mating dance on its roof.) We endured one hell of a long, cold winter up here. The understanding chief of police gave car owners permission to 'safely dispatch the nuisance bird.' No word yet on any denouement. I did clip and save the story, incidentally, to cite in just this circumstance.