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Image courtesy University of Washington Image courtesy University of Washington

Cowbirds, China and Chinookian hats

There is a small grassy meadow ringed by alder, serviceberry, hawthorn, and dogwood. For a month or so the morning song of a dozen species of birds, drawn to this riparian habitat, creates an astounding concert. I carry my camp chair, coffee cup and binoculars to the meadow nearly every non-raining morning. Our black and white cat bounds along in front of me and waits for the chair’s side table to be unfolded so he can sit up high and dry above the wet grass.

The bird song bounces like a confusing strobe light circling the room. A yellow warbler, moving through the serviceberry, stops to sing his sweet refrain. A male catbird has loud, querulous conversations with himself and stays hidden in the low, dead tangled branches of hawthorn. A northern waterthrush sings invisibly from the depths. Tree swallows swoop, a cedar waxwing pauses. A warbling vireo sings on the move; his pleasant tune is the only evidence of his presence. A pair of song sparrows is rightly worried about the cat. A couple of cowbirds, those with voices like chalk on a blackboard, seem to be following an American redstart.

And if the meadow is full of sound for me, imagine how the cat senses this strobe surround song of the most delicious flavor. Ears erect, head swiveling—he is intensely involved. 

As often happens, my thoughts wander. Cowbirds seek out a warbler’s nest to remove the warbler egg and lay a cowbird egg. The warbler incubates, hatches and nurtures a large cowbird. But how and when does a cowbird know what it should be? It has heard warbler song while still in the egg; it has called for food and been fed by a warbler. Does it migrate south with its foster flock? Yet, someday it must hear that super sweet chalk-on-a-blackboard call, and experience the aha moment. Aha, I was born to sit on the back of a large hairy animal that attracts flies for me to eat.

A willow flycatcher perched on a dead alder throws his little head back and repeats ‘fitz-brew’ every 7 seconds—like a metronome for the morning concert. From wondering why all flycatchers have slanted foreheads, I wonder why some coastal Native Americans squeezed the heads of their babies to create a flycatcher forehead. The Flathead Indians were so named because, unlike their linguistic ‘cousins’ on the coast, they did not mess with the skull shape they were born with. 

The Chinooks were the tribe most described by Lewis & Clark and other early Northwest explorers and trappers. All who met them remarked about their slanted foreheads. Mothers used a cradle board adapted with a cedar shake to gently reshape an infant’s head. Reportedly, this was done as a sign of beauty and tribal identity. 

But thinking about the never-ending rain of the Northwest coast, I began to see the value of a slanted forehead. If the only waterproof material available is cedar roots and these roots can only be woven tightly into a water-shedding conical design, well then, a conical head is necessary to stay dry. Easier to change the head than the hat. 

This tangential thought leads to the grossly elongated ear lobes of some African chiefs that also have a practical use. If there are no highways to drive your Mercedes on, you can prove how wealthy you are by wearing large gold discs in your ear lobes. Some African tribal groups preferred that wives carry the wealth around their necks in a stack of tight necklaces. A rich man’s wives had very long necks.

The image of swan-necked women leads to Chinese foot-binding. The custom didn’t grow out of a practical need like the coolie hat of the Chinooks; bigger shoes can be manufactured. There is no sensible purpose to crippling little girls. There must have been a powerful sadistic pedophilic emperor with a foot fetish who so loved the tiny precious feet of a three-year old girl, he decreed all upper class female children must have their toes broken and taped back to their insteps. Little tiny feet, almost useless, always painful—this is one cultural habit that belongs in history’s dust bin.

Snapped back to the present by a family of ravens on their morning squawk-about, I considered the cat, whose thoughts presumably did not wander to ancient China or Chinookan hat design. He was clearly only in the present, quivering like a tuning fork. Something—imperceptible to me—caused him to turn and stare into and through the deep gloom of a tangled hawthorn. His tail became a lashing bat. He growled. 

A house cat can be an effective predator, but he is only about midway up the food chain. Lots of critters see cats as just another item of prey. The cat growled again. I remembered neighbor John’s sighting of a large cougar last week, and considered that I also could be another item of prey. I stood up. An empathic snort, a clatter of branches; I still didn’t see the whitetail that the cat had sensed and I had spooked.

If the black and white cat had random thoughts, he would be long dead.

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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cowbirds, Chinook

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