Last week, from a deep sleep, I began to hear, somewhere at the distant rim of consciousness, the sound of birdsong beckoning me awake.
I wanted more sleep, but the tweeting tugged, tugged, tugged me upward, like a bucket drawn from a well, into the dim light of the waking world.
It seemed early, but I’m not a morning person, so the call of reveille always feels premature to me. I comforted myself with the thought that there are worse alarm clocks than birds. On most days, I’m awakened by the clock radio, which greets me with the morning news. The tidings are invariably bad — beheadings here, bombings there, banality on Capitol Hill. So maybe being lured out of bed by a bird instead of the headlines was not, I muttered to myself, an entirely bad thing.
I also felt a little smug about beating the alarm clock to the punch, and I wanted to tell it so. It’s probably a sign of advanced senility that I talk to household objects, but I’ve been doing it for years. The other afternoon, in a conversation I’ll have to share another day, I cursed out our electric can opener.
But the alarm clock had something to tell me that was much better than anything I could tell it. Across its face were large numbers noting the time, 4 a.m.
It wasn’t the right hour to wake up at all. I had, in a common ritual of spring, been fooled by a mockingbird into thinking that the sunrise had come.
During their mating season in early spring, mockingbirds often sing all night, especially when there’s a bright moon, according to ornithologist Dick Walton. Because we associate birdsong with daylight, it’s easy for sleepyheads to hear a mockingbird and become confused.
Here’s what Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald and Charles Fryling Jr., the authors of “Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens,” have to say about the mockingbird’s deception: “It is said that when windows are open on warm, spring, moonlit nights, its melodious tunes have caused mothers to think they had missed their alarm clock and arouse sleepy children from their slumber to ready them for school.”
Relieved that my day had yet to start, I got back in bed and tried to nod off. But my ear had hooked itself to the mockingbird, in much the same way that a dripping faucet slowly colonizes every corner of your brain.
There was no way not to hear its song, which was not one thing but many things — a bit of cricket chirp, a touch of rusty hinge, a policeman’s whistle, and here and there the hint of a tea kettle. Mockingbirds get their name because they’re expert mimics, throwing in lines they hear elsewhere.
Fascinating stuff. But at 4 in the morning, twisting under the covers, I found myself wishing that the copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on my shelf wasn’t a novel but a how-to manual.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.