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Huh?

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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All alone in the middle of the desert, I heard my granddaughter's voice all around me.

Before she was even three years old, my granddaughter, Talia, had developed the habit of saying, "Huh?" loudly and insistently whenever anyone was talking to her. I tried to discourage it, trying to replace it with a more civil, "What did you say?" or "What does that mean?" But, most of the time, my lessons in civil communication were interrupted with an insistent, "Huh?"

One spring morning, I took a pre-dawn hike in the desert. I was in San Diego on business for a couple of weeks (actually, my annual Naval Reserve active duty), so I spent the weekend in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I hiked out to Yaqui Well, hoping to see the desert bighorn sheep for which the park is named ("borrego" is a Spanish word for wild sheep).

The sun rose, and the creatures of the night disappeared while the desert came to new life with the creatures of the day. No sheep. But I enjoyed the company of the other desert creatures - rabbits and lizards, but mostly birds.

The desert was a new experience for me, and I took in as much of it as I could.

One species of bird in particular caught my attention: The phainopepla (say "FANE-oh-PEP-lah"). They were among the largest birds in the desert, but more on the small side of birds in general. Imagine a cardinal, stretched out a bit to make it thinner and a bit longer, and colored black. That's a phainopepla.

Their black feathers shone glossy and iridescent in the sunlight. This is what gives them their name (Greek for "shining robe"). But most of the time, they looked a dull dark charcoal grey. They had an oval white spot on the underside of each wing that flashed as they flew. Black-white-black-white-black-white.

They were also among the most numerous birds in the vicinity. And the most chatty. They called to one another from the bushes all around the mud puddle that is Yaqui Well.

My pamphlet on birds of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park described their call as "wurp!" I don't know if I'd call it a "wurp!" There was something strangely familiar about it. It seemed I had heard that call before, but I couldn't quite place it.

Then it dawned on me. They sounded exactly like my granddaughter! Nearly three thousand miles from home in the middle of the desert, I was surrounded by a dozen little Talias insistently asking each other, "Huh?"

Coming so unexpectedly from so incongruous a setting, the "Huh?" was not so annoying and every bit as amusing as usual.

I smiled to myself as I kicked back in the growing sunshine of a spring day in the desert, listening to the hummingbirds, the white-winged doves, and a dozen little Talias:

Huh? Huh? Huh?
Huh? Huh?
Huh? Huh?
Huh? Huh?
Huh? Huh? Huh?

Epilogue: To this day (she's eleven years old as I write this), when Talia says, "Huh?" I often reply, "I heard a phainopepla!" Hasn't broken the habit yet.




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