We are blessed with a boisterous African Bulbul or two around the property, Pycnonotus barbatus, one of the world’s great songsters.
The tunes start at daybreak: “Mogadishu! Mogadishu!” … as though to remind us that the two-million citizens of Somalia’s capital need some prayerful thoughts today — which most days would just have to be true. But this bird gets bored with regular lyrics. Before the morning is bright, the song has changed to “Sarajevo! Sarajevo!,” just so we don’t forget the once-besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This capital is heralded, all over our neighborhood, with the sunrise.
The tune I like best may break out just as one leaves the gate for a morning constitutional: “Lift your feet, Gregory! Lift your feet, Gregory!” “I’m trying! I’m trying!,” you answer back. It’s like having your own personal coach on the premises.
Some days we dash for the car and the bird has a timely reminder: “Where’s your keys? Where’s your keys?” Thinking about the college? It harks up the name of a lecturer: “Chris Lupia! Chris Lupia!” Getting too much sun? Our friend wants to know why: “Where’s your T-Shirt? Where’s your T-Shirt?” This music-maker seems to get his material from whatever is happening on the ground.
So much music from one small bird! Even in this dry Southen African region, which hasn’t seen rain for five months, our Bulbul must have the most extensive and effervescent musical repertoire in aviary files. And here’s the amazing thing: the common Bulbul is an uncommonly ugly bird. It’s as though the most beautiful music is produced by the most homely herald! This is your basic dusky sparrow with a tuft on the head and an elongated beak. In Africa’s small-bird population, it more or less defines “drab.” It has a coat so much the colour of dirt that when it shakes its way through the bird bath or under a sprinkler, it emerges virtually unchanged. The Bulbul is not at all like the Red and Yellow Barbet or the Baglafecht Weaver which fan the water upward in shimmering showers to emerge with glistening red heads and radiant yellow breasts.
But God seems to have made this homliest of birds the greatest of songsters. Indeed, the Bulbul’s only beauty is its song. And this makes it a symbol of many a weathered-yet-melodious person of faith, of all the Paul and Silas’s who lie bruised and ragged yet raise a song — a great cascading song that sets off tremors, that awakens the world to faith and hope, even when life has dealt them no favors!
No matter what, our Bulbul never seems to have a down day. It’s music is as sure as the sunrise, regardless of the weather. And it is never muted. This bird assumes, whatever the day or the hour, that all the world is ready to cut loose with some joy!
The closest he has ever come to complaining is with the intricate cadences of “I need a breakthrough! I need a breakthrough!” But we give our friend a “break” on that.
For it seems no matter how constant your song, amid the swirling dust storms of the dry season, when feathers are dull and the sky a haze — you still need an occasional breakthrough. As the great prayer-song of Jabez puts it, “Enlarge my territory! O Lord, bless me indeed!”