Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nature’s Alarm Clock Has Beautiful Melody

Pictured above is the Northern Cardinal, middle photo Tufted Titmouse and bottom photo Carolina Chickadee. Cardinal photo from www.songbirdgarden.com; Titmouse photo from www.animalpicturesarchive.com, and Chickadee photo from www. .org/microsites/education/trek.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly returned to Gotham from North Louisiana several weeks ago and am happy to report that my mother, who was very ill when I arrived in early February, is recovering nicely. I’m no longer in my homeland, but there are still plenty of stories to tell from my time there. It is my hope to share them over the next few months, with a dateline of MISSIVE FROM MONROE. And so the missives start with the birds.

MISSIVE FROM MONROE – ONE morning in the opening days of March it was so early that it was still dark. I was awakened by piercing noises of the beeps and chirps variety. Immediately, I checked my mobile phone to make sure my battery hadn’t died. Then checked the landline phone and then the Lifeline box in my late aunt’s sitting room.

I couldn’t find the source of the noise until I quieted down. And then it hit me: It was birds! Not of the Alfred Hitchcock species, but the kind that hang out in heavily treed areas.

Often in New York – as was the case this morning around 6 – I am awakened by garbage trucks. In the few weeks since I returned from Monroe I have also been shaken awake by sirens, blaring horns, the buzz of car engines and ConEd service trucks. This noise pollution is a jarring change from those symphonies that gently nudged me out of my slumber many mornings in March and April.

Lying there listening to the birds one morning I became curious about who exactly they were, so I contacted the Northeast LA Bird Club for some answers.

“Depending on where you are, you could be hearing different birds,” club president Joan Brown gives me to know via e-mail. “When I leave for work, I'm hearing Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, House Finches, House Sparrows, Blue Jays, Mockingbirds, and sometimes Martins.”

JB also gives me to know that most are local, except for the Martins. “These birds have been here all along … Some of the migratory birds are beginning to come in now, like the Martins. They usually show up in late January or early February. Some of the other breeding birds begin showing up in mid March and the migration continues until mid to late May,” she says of the visitors that will stay until anywhere from July to October before they set off for southern locales such as Mexico and South America.

“In the spring, some of the birds that pass through this area are on their way farther north. They stop to ‘fuel up’ as they go on their journey,” says JB. "As the leaves come out on the trees, worms and caterpillars come along to eat the leaves and the birds come along to eat the worms and caterpillars. This is a very important food for the birds as they are traveling through the area.”

And one imagines they must also need the fuel to harmonize. The melodies are so beautiful that one can only hope the birds are in a really good mood, but their songs serve a number of purposes. One function is to mark their territory. Humans have e-mail/instant messaging/phone/text and so on to keep in touch. Birds, on the otherhand, use songs to reach out to their “peeps,” especially during the winter. And is it any surprise they use them for courting? “Once the weather warms up, the hormones start flowing and the birds start singing for mates,” JB says. “During the winter, the birds have been slowly getting their new, bright plumage,” and it is the males like the Northern Cardinal that are the brightest and most vivid.

Like humans, birds have different character traits. Chickadees are curious like me and Cardinals are shy like my young cousin who lives across the street. They also have different eating habits. Titmice and Chickadees fetch and eat one seed at a time, then fetch and eat and so on until they get their fill. Blue Jays, however, stuff as many seeds as possible in their beaks, spit them out, then eat them one at a time. Mockingbirds don’t usually eat seeds, “but I have seen them sit at a feeder and swallow as many seeds as they could hold,” JB asserts.

Many mornings I lay awake listening to the birds – and it is morning when they are most full of song. They taper off in late morning toward noon and then often ramp it up in the evening. By night most are done for the day and go to bed in trees – evergreens especially – as they do during their daily siesta. When it’s really hot, JB says, “I have seen birds up in a tree, resting next to the trunk ... Not many birds roost in a box or hole in a tree."

But what are they singing? Is it something along the lines of Barry White’s “Playing Your Game, Baby?” Or something by Seal or Sting? Alas, most birders don’t know exactly what they are saying, concedes JB. “Birds have so many songs that they sing at different times. Every time I think I've heard all of a bird's song, I hear another one that I haven't heard before.”

I don’t know what the birds are singing about, nor does JB. But wildlife biologist Les Beletsky thinks he does. He writes as much in one of his many books on birds, "Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song" (Becker&Mayer). Loons, for instance, do most of their singing at night but do occasionally break out in tremolos during the day, LB contends, if humans or others disturb the peace.

What is more commonly known about birds is that males do most of the singing, “but there are several species of female birds who also sing," JB explains. “Female Cardinals and Tanagers will sing. All birds have what are called 'chip' calls. These can be used to keep in contact with the group, as a warning to other birds that danger is near. Or just for the heck of it!"

Is there any better reason to break out in song?

"Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song" is available (at presstime)in hardcover at amazon.com for as low as $10.22; learn more about the Northeast LA Bird Club at http://www.birdlouisiana.com/index.php?option=com_sobi2&sobi2Task=sobi2Details&catid=2&sobi2Id=16&Itemid=99999999

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