Virtually every morning I go out to fill the bird feeders in my backyard before I leave for work, and I have been hearing White-Crowned and White-Throated Sparrows singing for weeks, but I never see them. Looking out the windows I am used to see them foraging around on the ground, but this has not happened. So yesterday afternoon, which was absolutely gorgeous and sunlit, when I went out to sit and dig up the patch of pigwort that has invaded one section of the yard, I took the camera with me, just in case.
I was rewarded with the presence of three White-Crowned Sparrows and two White-Throated Sparrows. The White-Throateds showed up first, digging around at the bottom of the compost pile and then sometimes in it. They didn’t stay very long, however.
Eventually I noticed something interesting: one White-Crowned Sparrow was nibbling on a piece of spray millet that I had just recently added to the compost bin. I realized some time last week that I have been throwing out chewed-up spray millet every day with the cage papers and waste from my indoor birds, which means it’s been going needlessly to the landfill. It never occurred to me that someone might find the uneaten portions of this delightful treat irresistible.
The other attraction seemed to be little leftover bits of shelled peanuts. The squirrels probably get the majority of them but the birds have been onto this use of the tree stump for a while. I keep hoping for crows but I’ll take White-Crowned Sparrows anytime.
In case you’re wondering what the back view of a White-Crowned Sparrow looks like, here’s one shot from under the feeder pole.
The weather is still unseasonably cool but that’s nothing for the sparrows. I’m hoping they’ll stick around maybe for another week so I can continue to hear their beautiful songs. Yesterday as I had to go back into the house to resume indoor duties, I was treated to a little late-afternoon/early evening chorus I wish I had been able to record. One White-Throated Sparrow started out singing in B-flat, then a mourning dove joined in, in the same key, and then a House Finch started carrying on with his busy song. No people noise interrupted their singing. This was likely a one-time experience I’ll have to keep in my head, but it will remind me to take the recorder with me next time.
Life takes its twists and turns and I never know whether I’m going to wake up dreading the inevitable or embracing the challenge – or stuck somewhere in between.
Over the Thanksgiving Day holiday I had time to play piano for the birds…and to again ponder the sad state of my Yamaha P150 which I purchased perhaps 15 years ago, as a dealer’s floor model, and in the past half year or so was no longer inspiring to play. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to warm up to volume. And now a key was sticking, or stuttering loudly. Servicing would probably fix all this, but I would have trouble moving the keyboard into the car, let alone finding someone to service it – not to mention however long that would take, and I would be without an instrument to play.
So as I was looking about for some help with the existing instrument I ran across testimonials about the Yamaha CP300, which apparently has been out for years (but so have I) – and when I read a review from one concert pianist who said he prefers practicing on this instrument, it was all over. Why not get one? About the cost of another trip to Costa Rica, which I am not doing right now: and it would last me a lot longer than a one-week trip.
Knowing the quality of Yamaha’s keyboard instruments, I had absolutely no hesitation to simply press the button and order the new piano keyboard from Amazon.com. The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to be home for the delivery, because if nothing else I am no longer capable of handling a 94-pound dead weight myself. And UPS, which gives me warning a day in advance when it will be delivering something as unimportant as a calendar, gave me no warning what time the delivery was going to be attempted. I left work early after tracking the package but missed the driver by half an hour.
Luckily my friends Linda and Ed Rios came to my rescue and we picked up the piano from UPS the night of its missed delivery.
I made the recording above of Eric Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies yesterday afternoon. I have never learned it well enough to memorize it, so there are page turns, but the birds are singing along here and there.
I am in love with the new instrument and I feel like playing again. So much so that I have decided to alter my work schedule a bit in January so I can come in half an hour later a couple days a week and play in the morning before I leave for work. It is a shame to have only the weekends to play and then if I am doing something else in the morning being too tired or busy to play later.
I’ve been able to play more this weekend because my mobility has been compromised by some issues with my right knee. So except for the pain it’s been a relaxing weekend with lots of naps and hanging out with the indoor crowd as I get to know them better. I will see a doctor tomorrow and ask for a shot and an opinion, so I can get back to walking at my usual clip.
Now for a word about Dudley the Diamond Dove. Dudley started laying eggs a couple weeks ago…so she is now Dudlee. I know of two additional eggs that have broken because of where she has dropped them.
Dudlee’s egg collection
I have a lot to learn about doves. Apparently with Diamond Doves, both sexes sing. And Dudlee has two sounds. One vocalization is akin to blowing on an empty bottle. But the other is a lovely coo, and it’s always two notes. You can hear her sing it in the video below.
Dudlee hiding behind the broccoli
I also managed to record the two male Zebra Finches tonight, whose songs are still developing. Thus I have not yet named them. They seem to spend a lot of time fighting over territory, which involves chasing and cursing each other, but they have not come to blows so I guess it’s just a guy thing.
The first one’s song has a refrain, the cadence of which first reminded me of a Black Rail, but he is adding notes to the beginning of it, so I am hoping for a name to reveal itself soon.
The second one gave a little concert tonight as he foraged for nesting material.
So far, the new finch hens have been laying but nothing has hatched. Could be the time of year or simply the time it is taking for everyone to get settled in. Of course Dudlee’s eggs will never hatch, but maybe her gender explains part of the special relationship she has with Blue the lone budgie. She and Blue now share a perch at night and they sit feather-to-feather.
Dudlee in the Kitchen Window
Blue and Dudlee hanging out above a Society Finch nest
Things are getting back to normal on the most important level: I am playing music for birds again.
The pain of losing my housemates upon returning from Costa Rica hits like a heavy weight as I prepare the birds’ breakfast every morning. I am still plenty angry too, but there is no gain in holding that inside of me. I had hoped to manage some photographs more related to this post before publishing but it didn’t happen, so I’ve mixed in a few photos prescient of the Costa Rica posts to come.
Blue and Dudley, with my cell phone last night
Not having much time yet to observe the new charges but very interested in their individual abilities to adapt to the new environment, the survivors and each other, I am pleased to report that so far, so good. I was most worried about the Diamond Dove making an adjustment – to be sure I have never had one of these birds before and am not exactly sure why I brought him home, except that I have a soft spot for doves, it’s a beautiful bird, and, well, maybe I even wondered if my last remaining budgie wouldn’t feel so put out if he was not the only single. The dove is more settled in every day, and even might have said something as early as Tuesday morning while I was putting food in the second large cage. It was such a strange, loud sound and I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I could not connect it to anything going on outside.By Tuesday night he was cooing along with the music on the radio. I named him Dudley last night after Dudley Do-Right, one of my favorite cartoon characters. He follows Blue, the budgie, around, and may even have a crush on him (her? – too old to tell anymore). I can hardly wait to play music this weekend and see what transpires. And I hope Dudley gets more used to my real camera so I can take better pictures of him because he’s quite lovely.
Stuck in the office all day Tuesday while the reports of Sandhill Cranes flying over by the hundreds and thousands crammed the email–and I don’t even have a window to look out of–I was dispatched to Walgreen’s to buy some air freshener, so I chose the store that was on the corner of Randolph and State. Waiting at the light to cross State Street, almost before the light changed, I looked up and saw perhaps 250 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead – very high, and in a beautiful extended V formation, floating on the air currents, and felt redeemed.
Gray Catbird, Thompson Center
Wednesday morning I packed my camera and lens in the camera backpack, because my regular backpack has ceased to fasten around my waist after the trip to Costa Rica. Even though I was absolutely sure I would have no opportunity to use the camera, it seemed silly to be using a camera backpack without a camera in it. I got off the train and walked 6 blocks before a woman stopped me to tell me the back of my pack was open! Not thinking (again), I slung the pack off my shoulder to check on it (I should have asked her to zip it up, I suppose) and the camera fell out onto the sidewalk. What More Could Go Wrong? was my sentiment at the time. But I thanked her, put the camera back in the pack, started going through the mental exercise of replacement/repair…and then, as I approached the Thompson Center, I decided to do the sensible thing and take the camera out, attach the lens, and see if it was still working. After readjusting the function wheel, it seemed to be fine (maybe that’s why those Canons are so heavy, they are encased in armor). I shot a couple sidewalk scenes, and then started walking along the planted berm which is full of scrubby little yews, cigarette butts, garbage, and birds – invariably a Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow hangout. Except a Gray Catbird jumped out in front of me and let me take its picture before darting back into the yews. I found my cell phone and reported it to ebird. I am glad I got a picture because the sighting is unusual for this time of year, as I suspected. I have checked every morning since and cannot find the bird, so this was its farewell photo.
A little more poking around produced one or two White-Throated Sparrows–a bit less unusual–and plenty of the predictable pigeons and House Sparrows. But then it occurred to me that if my pack had not been open, and I had not dropped the camera, I would most likely have walked right by the berm without noticing the Catbird. So the birds have triumphed again in making sense under even the most ridiculous circumstances.
All of this chaos has caused me to sit back and take stock of where I am and where I really want to be. Instead of plunging ahead into the day-to-day-never-ending-existence that I inhabit. I am reminded of the more important work that I really want to get done–my work–and I am trying to find new resolve to make the time off from trips and some inclement weather birding count for something, for a while, and see if I can at least write the book that has been on my mind the past few years – if not the opera. It’s the least I can do in memory of all my dearly departed bird friends. I tried to take pictures of the temperature this morning with the cell phone so I could include them in this post, but it was apparently too cold for the phone to take the picture. As of 8:00 AM it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit or -6 Centigrade.
Two New Zebra Finch Guys (again with the cell last night) – awaiting Zebra Finch Girls
I will be back soon with pictures from Costa Rica, progress reports on the evolving indoor crowd, and eventually some winter birding in Chicago area too.
Here’s looking at you, from a Grayish Saltator
Thanks to all my followers and commenters and dear friends who are a great comfort and also more inspiration to carry on. 🙂
Oh how I wish I could still play for the wild birds! I’m getting ready to give a litte talk in a couple weeks and in the process I’ve been going through a few tapes, trying to get some of the earlier recordings when the windows were wide open and I was up in the trees.
In the spirit of spring, listen to this little clip from the third movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 8 KV 311 in D Major. There’s a beautiful cardinal singing along!
It’s been an interesting week. I went to the lakefront Wednesday morning because it was the only day of guaranteed sunshine, before the snowstorm. It was cold but clear, making for a dramatic sunrise.
The reflection of the sun on the water in the harbor made interesting patterns…
as the ice floes started to settle in.
I startled some Common Mergansers hanging out in the open water.
But did not seem to bother this female fishing close to shore.
By Thursday afternoon when I looked out from the 42nd floor onto the lakefront there was only a rugged sheet of ice (sorry, no picture).
The Snow came on Friday, about 8 inches of it by Saturday morning, making the weekend a winter wonderland. This male cardinal caught me taking pictures of him through the porch window yesterday.
Male Northern Cardinal
I had all the feeders out and the yard was a very popular place. I counted 30 House Finches. Unfortunately by the time I went out in the yard everyone left, except for this sleeping female House Sparrow on the wire.
sleeping Female House Sparrow
Today there was no sunlight so I stayed indoors, eventually focusing on this Mourning Dove.
Mourning Dove on the feeder pole
The female cardinal was in the yard today. I finally managed to capture her here.
Female Northern Cardinal
And now for your listening pleasure, I’ve gone back in taped time to about nine or ten years ago when I was learning the Mozart K 333 in B-flat Major. First, a little sample of Hidalgo the Spice Finch coming in exactly in time with the music, not exactly on his first try but very quickly on his second, as he knows what’s coming (toward the end of a few bars in the first movement).
And then if you’re game for a longer recording, I was practicing the Adagio, which starts off with a lot of zebra finch calls, then Fabrizio, the granddaddy, who is barely singing these days, so it’s nice to hear him when he was young and feisty. He is joined briefly by his first hatched male offspring, Facondo, whose name means something like “squeaky” in Italian, if I can believe the translation I got trying to make up the word-name. At the time I didn’t realize these guys were actually singing complex songs. If you can stand to listen to the entire fumbled adagio with the repeats you’ll also hear some bright spice finch whistles, a little spice finch singing, and toward the end some trills from the male budgie of record (I can’t say for sure if Zeke had come on board yet but I think this might be him); he’s very trilly indeed. And the whole thing ends with one “mwa mwa” from Hidalgo. It was a very lively session, when at the time I had only a few birds. I played piano a lot earlier in those days, too. Now I don’t get around to practicing on the weekends until noon; by then half the birds are napping.
This has been the warmest La Nina ever, and I have to wonder if this hasn’t been the warmest January in Chicago. Of course it’s early yet. Last year on January 13 we had snow and the lake had a think layer of ice on it.
Lake birds, 01-13-2011
But the prediction this coming Friday is for above-normal temperatures to continue.
The lakefront sunrise Wednesday morning was earlier, the days are getting ever so slightly longer.
The crows, of course, were in attendance.
A now very famous Black-Throated Blue Warbler hanging out by the bicycle rental at Millennium Park…
has been sipping sap from the trees the Sapsuckers have drilled into.
The Sapsuckers themselves are late to leave.
There was also a Cooper’s Hawk at Millennium Park that morning, and I annoyed him enough by taking his picture. He eventually moved on, leaving the warbler safe.
I woke up this morning with the prelude to the Bach A minor English Suite playing in my head. Only the purest silence eventually makes me aware. There was a little frost last night, but by the time I left the house it had melted off. I went to the Chicago Portage to see what exists. The tangled web of bare trees and dried vegetation offered winter views. All quiet, asleep, but potential lurks in that dormancy.
I did not get pictures of all 11 species that I saw. The first bird was a flyover Mallard duck. A little later I heard a constant sound that resembled a murmuring quack, or perhaps it was a squirrel sound. It turned out to be a Downy Woodpecker pecking away at the dried stems of Phragmites that grow by the water. I can’t imagine if the stems harbor dead bugs or some other delicacy but the Downy was persistent, until he flew up into the tree and gave me this nice photograph, one of several.
There were Mourning Doves sitting quietly in a tree.
Music in my head at the Portage was Albeniz, since I recently decided to revive the few pieces I once knew. The birds complied and remained in C#.
Female Northern Cardinal
On the path ahead there were several cardinals and goldfinches foraging.
It has been so warm, lichens are growing on this dead log.
I left the Portage and went to the grocery store, where by this time my head was playing the Tango by Albeniz which is in D major. I only remember this because the woman in line behind me thanked me for giving her my “tickets” – there’s some kind of promotion going on that I don’t have time for – and our conversation was in D. What would she think if I told her I had made her talk to me in the key of the music playing in my head? Was it worth the tickets I gave her?
I saw a Junco at the Portage but didn’t get a picture of one until I got home. This one is through the porch window.
Later this evening I counted 23 Mourning Doves under my feeder. It was too dark to take a picture, but I counted them three times to be sure. I had thought they were in decline because I wasn’t seeing them. I have never seen that many in my yard, ever! The new feeder must be doing a good job.
With a little luck I’ll have some musical excerpts coming up soon. So you won’t have to try so hard to hear the music playing in my head…
On my way to Wherever this weekend I grabbed a couple older tapes to listen to in the car, just to see what was going on at the time. No, I’m not kidding, my car is that old. And the tape player is on the fritz but every once in a while if I’m not going too fast I can listen to a tape if I crank the volume all the way up.
I had previously labeled the tapes notable for the vocalizations of the original male budgie Pete, a beautiful little green and yellow guy, the adopted bird who came with Blanche. When these recordings were made, I had only the two budgies, Pete and Blanche, maybe five or eight (by then) zebra finches, Fabrizio and Serafina being the originals, and the two original Spice Finches, Hidalgo and Sam, and Jules and Sophia, the two females I got when Sam turned out to be a male. I wasn’t sure of Jules so I gave her a name that could go either way. But that’s another story for a later post.
Hidalgo, the Caruso of Spice Finches, was on both tapes, and it’s probably his fault that I wasn’t listening to Pete the budgie when I played them in the car. I wonder if perhaps I have heard so many budgies since him I don’t have an ear for listening anymore. But when I listened back through headphones while trying to make clips from these tapes, I realized he sounds entirely different from the budgies that have all grown up in the house and are related to Zeke, the gray-blue budgie who still lives.
I play a little game with myself sometimes, when I’m in the kitchen and a budgie flies in, I don’t turn around to see who it is before I try to guess based on the sound of the patter. I’m right about 99% of the time, and I don’t know how I do it. If you asked me to tell you the difference between one budgie’s song and another’s, I couldn’t do it. But something in the pattern must be different enough that I recognize it, albeit unconsciously. Such is the thing with Pete’s song. The sounds are familiar, but the cadence is different. And I remember distinctly that after he died and Blanche was left alone, she sat around and sang his songs as if to recreate his presence, a fitting eulogy for her old friend. That was before she gave me the “If you think I’m going to sit here alone and be amused by these finches laying eggs and having babies, you’ve got another thing coming” ultimatum, which sent me to the pet store for Another Budgie.
So this clip has a couple of solos by Hidalgo and then Pete is singing with an almost passable version of the Adagio to Mozart’s C Major Sonata K 310, until I flub the very end of it. There are contributions from a zebra finch or two. I suspect the zebra finch songs have gained differentiation and complexity over the years. I’m sorry I did not keep a detailed family tree; I don’t think I was aware I was running an experiment until years after it started. I know I didn’t pay attention to the zebra finch songs until long after I noticed they were all different. I hope after I identify all the zebra finch songs I can make more sense out of their progression.
At any rate it seems I was still practicing the Goldberg, and it had to have been a once-a-week run-through at the time, so a haphazard rendition of the aria and the first few variations appears here until the phone rings. I did go back to playing but it was hard for us all to get back in the groove after the interruption; in particular we lost Pete. Here Pete adds constant comment and Hidalgo throws in his two cents among several zebra finch vocals. Note how Hidalgo always sings his long “mwah mwah” notes in key with the music.
Zorro the Zebra Finch is the only one of my little guys who got his name by association with another finch, and not by the character of his song. Indeed his song eluded me for a long time, until maybe about a year ago I started to get the gist of it. I’m sure he’s honed it down and it has matured over time, but I also think like acquiring a taste for a new style of music, I was paying more attention to it.
Zorro was a solo finch in that he had no siblings, so for company he started hanging out with his Aunt Zelda. I don’t know if she was really his aunt, but she was probably old enough to be. Zelda was the only female Zebra Finch I ever named outside of Serafina who was the original hen, because after that the females all started to look the same, had no distinguishing vocalizations, and I had no way to keep them straight, so the girls remained anonymous. But Zelda stood apart because of the skin disease or whatever it was that caused all the feathers on her head to finally disappear. Her condition made her kind of a loner and she probably had other symptoms as well that I couldn’t see or diagnose, as I kept expecting her to die. But she was a hearty little soul who outlived my expectations and she showered attention on the little guy I started calling Zorro. He was faithful to her and hung with her as he grew up, defending her in her final days.
Zelda the Zebra Finch
Maybe one consequence of Zorro’s hanging out with Zelda was that it affected his song development. For the longest time his song sounded immature to me, like a little subsong that never grew up, or stuttered. Upon first listening you might think he still sounds that way, but I have been able to detect more of a pattern to it, and there seems to be a little hurried musical phrase that rushes into the chorus which he then repeats over and over. It’s not easy to write out. “Ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH, ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH” is the rhythm I hear. I have absolutely no idea what I could have named this bird if I had to come up with a name based on his song!
What’s interesting to me about this excerpt is that while Zorro is singing along with the Bach in the prelude, he pauses when the key varies from C major, waits and comes back in when it’s in C. He gets impatient though in the fugue and starts singing when it’s not in C, so I don’t think C is the only key he can sing in, but it was the one he had decided upon to convey his mood.
Many more individual Zebra Finch males’ songs will come as I ferret them out of the tapes.
What does it mean? What is the significance of the birds singing in key with human music, with people unwittingly responding the same way, talking in the key of the music in the background, or of the music ringing in their ears after a performance? It’s not hard for me to imagine the vibrations left by the instruments still wafting in the air. Is it just a natural phenomenon, a matter of course, something to be taken for granted, or is there some significance to it? Is there perhaps something right in front of our eyes, or our ears, or our entire beings, that we are missing by ignoring it? We certainly ignore a lot of things that we take for granted. Heaven knows we’re too busy to waste time reflecting on or paying attention to natural phenomena when we have work to do, dinner to cook, phone calls to make and receive, social networks to attend. To try to slow down your day long enough to listen, or to look, fully with the senses you were born with, is the equivalent of an altered state. Why is this? It seems to me we shouldn’t have to be unusual, deranged or distracted to pay attention.
When I began to think about everything or everyone being in key, naturally, without having to do anything except be alive and present, it was tempting to make analogies to universal language, harmony (which connotes peace), and all those symbols that give hope to a chaotic existence. I wondered about the mechanics of it: if baby birds are born begging in key, what about human babies? If there is music at birth, is the child’s first cry in key with it?
The flip side suggests that where there is discord, perhaps we are then out of tune. In any range of the spectrum, from a simple argument to acts of aggression, will we still automatically be in key because we have no control over it, or in the alternative, will the friction render us out of key?
The next conclusion is that there must be some way to measure, on a cellular level, the effect music has on our well-being. If you’re skeptical about musical vibrations on a minute level, listen to a recording of the sounds made by yeast. If exposure to noise rearranges our molecules enough to cause us harm, what of the opposite effect? There are plenty of proponents of music therapy. Can this be measured? Are there better ways to treat more illnesses with music than we know? Is the act of playing music or singing restorative? Music used to be a much bigger part of our lives than it is now, people participated more often than being passive recipients of music. On the bright side, due to enhanced methods of communication, we are now being exposed to other musics more often than those we consider our own, as “world music” becomes popular. Is there any way that sharing music can become a metaphor for peaceful coexistence?
I will return to this subject from time to time because it fascinates me, but I also tend to veer off in divergent directions. I cannot stay up all night so I will leave you with this thought: whether you realize it or not, music is all around us and within us, even in silence, as John Cage was so apt to point out.
While trying to boil down excerpts of Hidalgo’s song, Hidalgo being my once-upon-a-time loud, if there is such a thing, singing Spice Finch a/k/a Scaly-Breasted Munia or Nutmeg Mannikin, two of the current Spice Finches were messing around on the floor outside the door of the room where I’ve got the tape to MP3 operation happening. It’s unusual behavior for them to be on the floor, period, so I can only imagine that as faint as the sound was coming through my headphones, they heard a distant Spice Finch calling or singing somewhere and were determined to find this bird. I have never played back a recording of the birds to themselves because it seems like a dirty trick; I don’t want them to get confused, or worse yet, maybe go through the same horror that strikes us humans: “I don’t sound like that!” Or get hip to the idea that I’m recording them and shut up altogether. Although sometimes I get the opposite vibe from them, that they like to show off, and as soon as I turn on the tape recorder they start vocalizing.
I’ve attached two recordings. One is of Hidalgo pretty much solo singing his entire song a couple times, so you can get the gist of it. There is a zebra finch who comes in, and then a budgie flies by, but if you listen carefully you can hear the song with the little “mwa, mwa” refrain at the end. This might be the only audible recording of a Spice Finch singing on the Internet. And then the second recording has him singing in key, of course, along with the Mozart Piano Sonata in C Major, K 330, such as I was practicing it that day. He seemed to like the second half of the Allegro and he sings pretty much (along with a couple zebra finches) in the Andante Cantabile.