Tail-Wagging Warbler

by R. G. G. Price

The harish bird of East Nepal, long believed to be extinct, has turned up again, and my paper says it can produce a musical sound from its tail. This is a skill that any creature could be proud of; but what conditions can evolution have thought it was fitting the harish bird for? Perhaps it is very greedy and its mouth is always full, so that if it didn’t issue its love calls from the other end, the breed would die out — as, apparently, it nearly did. Evolution has contributed a good deal to the gaiety of nations, what with the peacock’s fan, the hummingbird’s hum, and the chameleon’s chromatic versatility, and it deserves the credit for this particular addition to the resources of entertainment.

If the bird had not been rediscovered but had survived only in legend, we would never have believed in its caudal music, which would have seemed just a part of its fabulousness. As the story moved westward along the great trade routes, it would have grown more marvelous, and modern skepticism would have rejected the lot, the true with the false, the melody with the ability to cure the quinsy by its tears or to turn itself into an aeolian harp when menaced. We would have laughed in a superior way when we opened a moldering calf-bound volume and read, “The harish bird doth approach his love humbly, scilicet retrowise, and doth pour out music of angelic sweetness from his tail. These sounds be said to resemble the Lydian mode. If a witch be fanned seven times with the feathers. . . .”Rationalism has left too many casualties.

Our zoologists are going to look pretty silly if a phoenix rises out of some ashes in Kurdistan or a unicorn is taken captive by a virgin in a London park. (The virgin would be as improbable as the beast.) One day the Abominable Snowman may be found. Perhaps he may turn out to be another entertainer, not just making fire, like Neanderthal man, but eating it at parties. Many legends are coming true already — men changing into women, monster builders who make Frankenstein seem like a primitive, chariots that cross the sky faster than sound, including sounds that take off from the harish bird’s vivacious rear.

Not all the legends in the books are zoological. For example, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190) was long believed to be living in a cavern near Salzburg. His beard continued to grow, and fairly soon after his arrival underground it had grown twice around the great table at which he and his knights sat in a trance. When it had grown around a third time, he was going to bring Germany a golden age. If some party of archaeologists, crowded out of the hunt for the Dead Sea Scrolls, ran across him and brought him around, there could be tensions. The cave is at Berchtesgaden, and Frederick might easily feel jealous of the rival local celebrity. Let us hope the team’s sponsor, say the University of Pennsylvania, would be lucky and discover he had a fine bass and cover the cost of the expedition out of his recordings.

Can we be sure that Assyrian winged bulls exist only in museums, and museums with strong floors? If some live in a backwater on the Iraqi-Iranian border, I should expect them to be grounded, like the duckbill platypus. Those wings look aerodynamically unsound to me. But they are certainly picturesque, and used rather like fans, would be the making of a courtship dance. Lucky the traveler who sees winged bulls gyrating to the music of a migratory harish bird.

Do melodies produced from tail feathers count as birdsong? I suspect that neither Shelley nor Wordsworth would have been so enthusiastic about skylarks if the silver sound had come from the inferior end. Poets ought to show appreciation of originality; but there is a certain prejudice. However, the whole topic is complex and ambiguous, and very short on facts. Am I even right in assuming that the bird is dumb? Perhaps the throat produces the melody and the tail the harmony. Which end is the rhythm section? Ornithologists may know much more than leaked into the press. Lazily, I don’t want to hear. No facts can possibly irradiate my imagination like this tantalizing glimpse of nature’s endless riches. I am prepared to believe that East Nepal is crammed with exciting rarities.

My encyclopedia gives me the feeling that the whole country is on the odd side. Autos have to be dismantled and carried in by hand, to be reassembled for use on the one good road; but the first manufacture on the list it gives is matches. Perhaps the strain of attaining a fully developed transport system with only spare parts and of supplying the flame deficiency caused by a complete absence of lighters rather distracted attention from the local wildlife, though to me, sitting comfortably in the West, it seems peculiar that a bird of such marked individuality should have escaped notice long enough to be thought extinct.

Perhaps what happened was that when white naturalists interrupted a group of elders as they chattered in the bazaar, to get rid of their irritating inquiries the elders told them that the bird had died out. Being, like most naturalists, men who believed what foreigners told them, they went off to New Zealand moa hunting, or roc hunting in Arabia. The elders would then continue their excited conversation about their country’s industrial development — now there were to be matchboxes with jokes on them, starting with one about two Sherpas meeting on Everest — and then they would fall into a fierce argument over where the steering wheel went in the new four-seater; if they could only fit the contents of the packages together in the right order, they could spend the afternoon on Katmandu.

I wonder whether there is much interest in its homeland in the bird’s re-emergence. News of it will arouse more comment along the urban motorways of more industrialized lands, where the birdsong is drowned by the noise of progress and men sit in traffic jams reading wistfully about this tuneful nonconformer, this odd, lovable creature. But even “lovable" is a guess. The story contained no indication of size. I hope I haven’t been sentimentalizing over something with the dimensions, and the personality, of a buzzard.