a note on surf music

That’s your robins in a nutshell, though. They’re bigger, and they’re cocky, and they think they can roll all night, and those first ten berries go down easy….”


by brian doyle


“They come in, and they’re hammered. We give them a day or two to sober up, and then we send them on their way.”
— Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland, about birds who get drunk feasting on fermented berries in winter

Well, your waxwings are the worst. They just have no control at all. I say that with total respect for waxwings in general but there are a few bad apples for whom one or two berries is never enough, no, it’s got to be forty or fifty, and then it’s muscle cars and street hockey and surf music at all hours of the day and night. You never heard anything as awful as surf music sung in the wrong key by a drunk bird in a hockey helmet. And the fights! We had us a donnybrook last week, we had about thirty waxwings drying out, and one of them says that The Surfaris are the greatest band ever, and another says The Chantays, and of course a bunch of them jump up to defend The Ventures, and then a robin says something disparaging about old Dick Dale, and boy did the feathers fly! We had to laugh after we got them all into the isolation tank. I mean, who would be dumb enough to disparage old Dick Dale? Lord help us, the man invented the guitar and the internal combustion engine and swimming pools shaped like kidney beans. Where would we be as a civilization, I ask, without old Dick Dale?

That’s your robins in a nutshell, though. They’re bigger, and they’re cocky, and they think they can roll all night, and those first ten berries go down easy, everyone’s singing and chaffing and feeling witty and telling Bud Clark stories, and then they have another ten, and things get totally out of hand, and robins have long memories and nasty tongues, you know, I seen robins in foul moods debark trees. They’re mostly fans of The Lively Ones, robins are, and they just worship Jan and Dean, and they get maudlin real easy about old Jan and Dean, they play “Dead Man’s Curve” over and over really loud, and build little shrines to Jan Berry with soda straws and gum wrappers and ice-cream sticks, that sort of thing. We used to take down the shrines when the robins were released from the drunk tank but we eased up on account of no question Berry was a genius both before and after his accident, so there you go.

Here and there we get an owl but that’s usually a case of accidental ingestion on the part of the owl, which they are not quite as wise as people think. An owl out for a big night, he eats three or four drunk waxwings, he gets to feeling a little silly himself, tries to swoop down and carry off a horse or a nurse or a bus, and he ends up in here, totally mortified. We did have one owl who would wolf down a few waxwings and then camp out in the trees at the parking lot up by Doernbecher and try to hoist up the late-shift nurses, but you don’t want to mess with a nurse, they have lightning reflexes, nurses do, that owl retired altogether from waxwings after the second time a nurse whirled and grabbed him by the talons and beat him against a light pole until his brains were jelly and he was ready to vote for Ross Perot.

Crows, no, I don’t think we have ever had a crow, they police themselves, you know, like eagles and jays do, whereas your little fellers, your warblers and nuthatches and such, they’re like teenagers, half a berry and they throw up in the bushes and crawl home to watch old Calgary Flames games. No, it’s pretty much waxwings and robins here, and there’s two kinds of waxwings, you know, there’s your cedars and your Bohemians, and Lord help us when both clans are loose in the berry bushes, the slurs and brawls! That happened last winter and we lost two staff members here after that, big strapping guys, too, they just quit cold, they said it was worse than a fifth-grade classroom at Halloween. One guy went into a monastery out by Lafayette and the other started a surf band. I have his demo tape here if you have a minute, let me get the speakers aimed into the cages right and we’ll have us some fun, the Canadiens play the Maple Leafs in half an hour too. Hey, care for a berry?

Originally published:
Issue Fifty-Three
November 2008


(illustration: john richen)

Brian Doyle is a muddled male mule who has committed eight books rather like a series of venial sins: five collections of essays, nonfiction misadventures about hearts and wine, and a collection of “proems” that the great American poet Pattiann Rogers says darkly will ruin the word poetry for ever and ever. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke. (bio/2008)

Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall.  He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved.  Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017. 

More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.


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