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It was the beginning of summer and I was approaching a corner in my life. I did not know that it was waiting for me, let alone that it would be of great significance; and when I turned it, there was no artillery salute, no bands played, no thunder rolled. The only sound was a quick, light tapping that seemed to be coming from the enclosed lanai on the lower floor. I was upstairs in the living room reading a book in an attempt to relax. My husband had left Santa Barbara that morning on a trip to Mexico, and I was already regretting my decision not to accompany him.
There was no one else in the house, yet the tapping continued. The dogs were lying beside my chair, not to indicate their devotion so much as to make sure I didn't go anyplace without them. Normally they barked at the drop of a decibel half a mile away, but they didn't stir until I reminded them sharply that they were supposed to be watchdogs. Then, responding to my tone, they started tearing up and down the room in a loud and disorganized demonstration of watchdoggedness.
I went downstairs, the dogs at my heels. The rooms—lanai and storage room, piano alcove, my husband's study and bath—were empty, as expected, and outside there was nothing unusual—no curious child from one of the houses across the canyon, no lost dog or straying cat. As I started back upstairs I heard the tapping again. This time it was closer and I could tell exactly where it was coming from—the window of the bath between my bedroom and my office. The new development wasn't exactly reassuring since that particular window was 15 feet from the ground. Vague, fearful thoughts went through my mind, of ghosts and hauntings and Harry Houdini, who had vowed to come back from the dead and make himself known.
The ghostly noise stopped when darkness fell, and I heard nothing more until the following morning shortly after dawn. Once more I searched the house, upstairs and down, inside and out, and found nothing out of the ordinary. But I had no sooner gone out to the kitchen to make breakfast when the tapping started again from one of the east windows of the lanai.
I was finishing breakfast when Bertha Blomstrand, who'd recently built a house across the road, phoned to ask if I was awake enough to come over and see something peculiar. She advised me to make as little noise as possible, which, translated bluntly, meant that whatever you do, leave the dogs at home.
Bertha was waiting for me at the front door. She motioned me to be silent, then led me through the house to a window which looked out on the driveway, where her car was parked. It was a small foreign model, so common it could be seen on any street at any time. The only unusual thing about it was the left rear hubcap, which was being vigorously attacked by a brown bird. The bird would fling himself at the hubcap, beat it with his wings and peck it with such force that we could hear the sound clearly through the closed window. This was not love. This was war. The chrome of the hubcap showed the bird a mortal enemy.
Thus the source of the tapping on my windows was discovered, and it was not a mysterious Houdini whodunit. It was a little brown bird who acquired a name before he even had an identity—Houdunit.
I went back home, relieved that the culprit was nothing more formidable, yet curiously unsatisfied. What species did he belong to? Had he engaged in previous fights with his enemy in the left rear hubcap of Bertha's car and in the window of the lanai and of the upstairs bathroom? And why only this one hubcap out of four, these two windows out of many?
I had come to the corner, and only one step was necessary to take me around it. The step seemed a very small one: later in the morning, when I went to the supermarket for groceries, I bought a 39� box of parakeet seed.
The first customer for the parakeet seed was Houdunit—or his brother, sister, cousin, aunt—followed a few minutes later by a small, energetic brownish bird with striped underparts. It was promptly joined by another bird of the same size, shape and behavior but with a red breast and face. In spite of the difference in coloration they were obviously a pair. From their quick discovery of the food and their unhesitating descent on it, it also seemed obvious that they were a part of the neighborhood, a bright, lively, tuneful part. Yet I had never seen or heard them before. They might as well have been silent creatures of the darkest night. How could I have missed them? This theme is a recurrent one among bird watchers. To the uneducated eye, as to the incurious mind, much of the world is in darkness, and a thousand songs are lost on the unlistening ear.