I should state up front that I like birds. I like them all happy and chirpy, and especially extra crispy. I like them, but not as much as tourists in Venice like them. Those people flock to photograph pigeons so quickly, you'd think a pigeon was Pavarotti. I don't get it.
But anyway, there is a very good reason why I wasn't getting much sleep anymore. That reason chose the tree up against my window as its personal karaoke booth a couple of weeks ago.
I'm one a person that needs silence to fall asleep. As I settled into bed one midnight, I heard a bird chirp a few times. "That's sweet," I thought. But there was an answering chirp. And another. For the next three or four hours, my room was filled with what sounded like several birds with different calls. Screechy calls.
I tumbled out of bed and slammed the window a few times. Silence. Then it started up again, even louder. I tried earplugs, to no avail. I put several blankets over my head. That worked, but it felt like Calcutta so I gave up. I left town for a few days with the hope that when I returned, the birds would have moved on. No such luck.
So I asked park naturalist Geri Flaim at Locust Street Grove Nature Center why the birds were yammering at me every night.
"Generally, birds are not in flocks this time of year," Flaim said, "unless they're migrating. I bet you have a bunch of birds hanging out on your tree while on their migrating route."
"So my tree is a pit stop?" I asked, making a mental note to avoid stepping in that area.
"What can I do?"
"Move to another room."
That didn't help.
"I would really need to hear the bird to know for sure," said Bob Ford, Rock Creek Park natural resources manager, "but the mockingbird is notorious for singing through the night. It has multiple voices so it can sound like a dozen other birds. It's loaded with energy."
Ford suspected I had a male mockingbird courting females and claiming my tree as its territory, in which case I had a nighttime companion for the next several weeks. Besides simple tolerance, he had only one suggestion: "When you hear him singing, look outside and figure out which branch he's on. Usually they have a favorite perch. Determine which limb he likes . . . and cut it off."
While Ford turned out to be correct about the mockingbird, and while I liked his logic, destroying my own property would be an admission of defeat. It was war now between me and the bird.
One late afternoon I was outside when I heard a familiar noise coming from a tree about 50 yards away. It sounded like a cross between a busy signal and a car alarm. It had to be the bird. So I grabbed a tape recorder and Linda-Tripped the sucker.
I got everything. When he quieted down, I played the tape back. After a few seconds, the real bird came diving toward me. A flash of white swooped into my tree and chirped back at the tape recorder. I felt triumphant. I was flipping the bird out.
That night, though, he started up earlier and louder than before. I raised my window and yelled back into the darkness. "B-CACK!" "Let's see how good this mockingbird really is," I thought. "Let's hear him do a chicken."
The response was garbled, but he got points for effort.
I called Jane Huff, the Audobon Naturalist Society's director of environmental education. "You need to find him a mate," she said. "This time of year, the birds are probably all attached. You must have a young male who hasn't done this before. The older males have better repertoires so they have all the ladies," Huff said.
"He's an unfulfilled bachelor. You should just hope that when he finds his mate, he sticks with her," she added, "because if he wants to have another nest, he may start up again in August."
This dual living arrangement would not work. I asked Huff if I could just freak the guy out with my tape recorder.
"He's competing with you," she said. "If you can outlast and out-sing him, he'll just go away in despair."
When I settled at my window that afternoon, ready to rumble, I couldn't hear or see the bird. I held up the recorder, blasting the infernal sounds. Immediately, he appeared in a branch right in front of me and I got a good look at him for the first time.
He was a surprisingly little guy -- pretty plain-looking, actually, with brown-gray wings and a flinty white neck. He cocked his head and stared with slanted, beady eyes that seemed to alternate between defiance and sadness. And he didn't say a word.
Irewound the tape and played the medley again. The bird hopped onto a few higher branches before returning to look at me for a long moment, face to beak. Then, with another flash of white, he was gone.
I ran outside, still playing the recorder, but nothing stirred in the dense summer air save a few crows and a wayward tissue. The tree was strangely still.
The next night, I slept better than I had in days. The following night was much of the same. The only sounds in my dreams were calm waves, gentle breezes, and, finally, at about 5:30 in the morning, a jackhammer.
I shook awake as the wall behind my headboard pounded like a metronome on speed. I trudged outside to investigate. A large woodpecker was doggedly ramming the gutter. I was cursed.
When I called Ford, he was not surprised. "That one's just trying to make noise on a resonant spot. You can try putting an old blanket over the spot to discourage him, but that will probably just move him down the gutter."
Upon catching my groan, Ford tried to offer reassurance. "I wouldn't say you're doomed for life," he said. "Do you plan to live there a while?"
I don't rely on silence for sleep anymore. My new lullaby is a little-known radio station: AM 520-or-so. The constant static kind of grows on you, although one of these days I might try falling asleep to music instead. I'm thinking Pavarotti.