by Mary Elfner
I love birds. I always have. My mother used to tell a story on me of waking up as a baby while the family was camping and smiling and laughing during the dawn chorus, that fleeting moment at dawn in the spring when all the birds seem to be singing at once. I was relating to the bird song – finding joy in it – I still do. So while there are many aspects and behaviors of birds that captivate us, like flying, building nests, laying eggs, and migration, it’s bird song that fascinates me the most.
As a birder, this question is posed to me often: Why do birds sing? My easy answer is because they can. And then I ask, Why do you talk? There are more standard answers like for stating territory and attracting mates. And then there are the language and musical aspects.
I believe that bird song is a language and music rolled up in to one. The concept of melody could easily have been created from listening to bird song. And we are hard-wired to listen, and to imitate. When visiting schools to teach students about bird song identification and conservation, I play bird songs, and then ask the students to come up with a mnemonic device. For instance, the standard mnemonic saying for a three-parted Carolina wren is “Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle”. But I’ve had students come up with “Cheese Burger, Cheese Burger, Cheese Burger”. It’s fun, and the kids get a real kick out of it. On a deeper level, they’re being taught to listen and to appreciate the natural world around them, especially in their own backyard.
Scientific researchers at McGill University in Montreal have found compelling evidence that human speech and music, and bird song, may share a similar origin in the respective brains of humans and songbirds, with neurons firing in particular patterns. So, we as humans are, perhaps, predisposed to listen, and somewhere deep in our brains, understand the basic phrasing of bird song.
Unfortunately, I fear we are losing our interest in natural sounds. Or perhaps it’s due more to being distracted by technology, then losing interest. George Monbiot states in his Opinion article fic in The Guardian (www.theguardian.com) “If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it.” Screens have become the preferred mode of playing for most children, and they need to balance screen time with unstructured outdoor time.
The next aspect of birds that I and many others find fascinating is migration. Above us, twice a year, is a river of birds that the majority of us are not aware of. These migrating birds accomplish physical feats that you nor I could never dream of completing. For example, the Arctic tern flies from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again each year of its life. One journey is greater than 12,000 miles. Imagine completing that kind of a marathon every year of your life.
But not all birds migrate. We have our resident birds like northern cardinals (they sound like car alarms), blue jays and Carolina wrens. They live here in our area year-round. Some birds visit us only for the winter – the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a woodpecker of the northern woods and for which the woods around Cornell University are named), the yellow-rumped warbler – affectionately known as a ‘butter butt’, and ducks of all kinds. And then some breed here and leave in the late summer/early fall for their wintering grounds – purple martins, wood thrush and many types of warblers. There is a great diversity in bird migration behavior and it’s another fascinating aspect of birds and of learning about them. Many bird species travel widely and tie our planet together by migrating.
Among all these amazing behaviors and aspects of birds, what’s most important is for us to get outside and enjoy them. You don’t have to always go outside though. Do you hear those mockingbirds and American robins singing their hearts out in the pre-dawn and sometimes all through the night? These birds are experiencing huge surges of energy through hormonal changes that force them to sing so that they can attract mates and keep the species going. Survival is strong. So, appreciate birds for their colorful feathers, sounds and behavior. Adults – take a child outside with you and awaken a sense of wonder in them. You don’t have to know a lot of facts, just bring a healthy sense of curiosity.
In “A Sense of Wonder”, Rachel Carson, mother of the environmental movement, wrote, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
A few things to electrify this sense of wonder:
Take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count each mid-February. http://gbbc.birdcount.org/
Take part in Project Feederwatch. https://feederwatch.org/
Learn more about bird species from Cornell University’s All About Birds website. www.allaboutbirds.org
Join the Richmond Audubon Society. www.richmondaudubon.org