Friday, May 25, 2012

May 25: What's with you?

Everyone has their own memory devices to identify bird songs. But what works for one birder might not work at all for another, especially if that other is an older birder who's lost the upper register of his or her hearing and can't hear all the notes of the song. Fortunately, that's not me... yet. I may need reading glasses, but my hearing is still excellent and I do most of my spring birding by ear.

But here's what I'm talking about. Most birders learn the song of the white-throated sparrow as, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." Or, an alternative: "O Canada, Canada Canada." Those long, clear, resonant notes are distinctive in the Maine woods, recognized by most as a sound of summer even if they don't know what the bird looks like or even its name. I, however, was taught as a child by my grandmother that the sparrow is singing, "We're going to have rain"--each word a long, drawn-out whistled note. It was years before I really heard the vibrato that makes those final notes into triplets of sound (like "Peabody," "Canada"), but by then it was too late. The "rain prediction song" was the association irrevocably stuck in my head. (And here in Maine, it's going to rain almost always--so that prediction is usually accurate.)

In many bird books, the song of the chestnut-sided warbler is described as "Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you!" But I hear, "Hey, hey, hey, what's with you?" As I was walking to my car this afternoon to run an errand, a chestnut-sided warbler sang close by, very loudly. "What's with you?!" he asked, and I found myself musing as I drove to the bank if that was more than a mnemonic. Maybe the world was posing me an existential question through that bird. What is with me? Why am I so tired this week? Is it this blanket of fog? Or something deeper, darker?

Then I laughed.

What's with me? Thinking
the world is all about me.
Birds sing for themselves.

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