The Oven Bird’s Cry: Teacher,Teacher, or CherTee, Cher Tee?

The oven bird

The oven bird, seiurus aurocapilla, a variety of warbler,  resides in the Northeast U.S. in summer but winters in Florida and Central America. The oven bird  likes to be heard, but not seen–rather like a shy child who won’t stop talking but stays  in her room. It’s  known for its loud and ringing call, “Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, ”  or alternately, “chur-TEE chur-TEE chur-TEE.” Although birdwatchers reported seeing (or perhaps only hearing)  oven birds on Cape Cod near my summer digs as late as last December–our very warm winter in these parts– I’ve haven’t yet seen one this spring. Yet I know his voice, insistent and strong, because it’s in my ears as I plant a summer garden, attempting to transform a sand pile full of weeds into my approximation of an English cottage garden. As oven birds enjoy a diet of terrestrial arthropods and snails, I’m certain some of these warblers will be by sooner or later—I’ve spied dozens of snails in the long-abandoned garden in front of my kitchen.

Here’s what the oven bird sounds like—more a call than a song, but quite attention-getting:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ovenbird/sounds]

New England’s iconic poet Robert Frost memorialized the oven bird in his sonnet of the same name. The work was published in 1916, in the collection called  Mountain Interval, published by Henry Holt and Company. For Frost, the oven bird is not so much a singer as a philosopher who looks ahead to the melancholy of fall even as summer is at its brilliant, sun-drenched best. My grad school professor, the late, brilliant Anne Davidson Ferry, taught me that  Frost’s poem was  an obvious reworking of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” part of a conversation between poets across  two decades. Still, as bleak as Hardy’s 1900 work seems, Frost’s is even more poignant, and what he teaches us is both disturbing and necessary.

 The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

        5

He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.

        10

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.