Early in the college phase of my life, I became friends with a girl who lived in Pewee Valley. At some point, driving along in a car, we had a conversation about the name Pewee Valley, and Angela explained to me that it was named after the pewee bird. “Pe-WEE, pe-WEE, pe-WEE,” she said, “That’s it’s call.”
Not too many years before, I had taken an on-and-off, very casual interest in bird watching. Well, maybe not so much bird watching as bird awareness. I wasn’t exploring wilderness areas with a pair of binoculars and a checklist; but I was watching the bird feeder, and using a Peterson field guide to identify birds.
This “pewee bird” was a new one on me, though. I didn’t recall ever seeing or hearing one, so I mentally categorized the bird as something slightly exotic, living in the wilderness of Louisville’s periphery, possibly mythical.
Fast forward a quarter of a century. The memory of the pewee bird description stayed with me, but I still didn’t recall every noticing one. Awareness of the memory probably just never surfaced often enough, or at the right time, for me to bother with an internet search to learn more about it. So, for more than 25 years, the pewee wasn’t much more than a feathered mental chupacabra.
That brings me to a few weeks ago. I was sitting in our family room with my daughters and my mother-in-law, as dusk settled ouside; we were all reading. After a while, I became aware of an intermittent, high-pitched bird call from outside. Not super loud, but loud and high enough to penetrate our wall and windows more distinctly than the rest of the evening bird racket. “Phwee-EEEH. Phwee-EEEH.”
I looked at my mother-in-law and asked, “What is that? That bird?” She said she didn’t know, but had heard it the night before, too.
I went outside. There, the call became less distinct, because it was mixed in with all the other bird noises that I couldn’t hear from indoors. It was somewhere off in the trees, but I couldn’t see anything. I was puzzled; I had no idea what it was, and went back inside.
Over the following days, I heard the bird again. Finally, I went to the Cornell University bird web site, and started listing to the bird calls of birds I already knew, thinking that maybe one of them was making calls I was unfamiliar with (I had recently been surprised to learn, via Cornell’s pages, that odd piping notes behind our house were blue jays; I was even more surprised a couple of months ago when I witnessed, from my front yard, a blue jay imitating a red tailed hawk.)
I listened to a lot of bird calls and still had no answer, but resolved to continue the search later.
A short while after that, we were visiting friends at their house in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. As we talked and played basketball in the back yard, I again heard the bird call off in the trees. Phwee-EEEH.
I thought for a minute. How do I search on the internet for a bird call? I would need a description that matches the call. Very high-pitched, whistling, sounds kind of like “Fweeee” … How else could the call be described? “WeeyaEEEE?” “PweeEEE?”…
…holy crap. “Pewee?”
I pulled out my smart phone and looked up “pewee call.” I was taken to the Cornell page for the eastern wood pewee, and sure enough, found the call.
Apparently, it’s not a rare bird at all (although if my experience is any indication, it’s not exactly common in residential Louisville, and vanishes altogether to South America in winter anyway.) I got the visual description of this small member of the flycatcher family, so I knew what to look for.
There, in my friends’ driveway, I played the recording, and I think it actually provoked the pewee that was in the tree-line a good way off to fly over to a nearby tree. Regardless of the reason, it did fly to a tree by the driveway, and I could see it.
I probably had seen it before; except for the loud, distinctive call, the eastern wood pewee is easy to overlook. They are small and olive-drab, matching the colors of the tree branches on which they perch, looking very nondescript from a distance (especially if your distance vision is as bad as mine.) A more detailed view will show them to have cute crested heads and cute short tails, but from a little way off they just look like any old small bird.
There are at last two living near my house, and I hear them and see them almost every morning and night. In fact, a couple of nights ago, as I mowed our back yard, one flew down to a post in the middle of the yard, watching for insects that I was stirring up. I got within fifteen feet of him, lawnmower still running, before he flew off (and I don’t think he flew away because of my proximity; I think he was chasing a moth.)
I am very happy to have made this acquaintance, and every time I hear them now, I smile.