Please Let It Snow

Sunrise IMG_9126_1

Sunrise, 1-4-13

 January finds us in a winter drought. The lake level is so low, the shallow water froze overnight as soon the temperature dropped, something that normally takes weeks…

Ice Lake IMG_9131_1

and even the ice looked like it was caught by surprise…

Ice IMG_9175_1

jagged, disjointed,

Ice IMG_9219_1


Ice IMG_9183_1

and the water stains on the sides of the harbor show just how low the water is.

Water Level IMG_9215_1

There were no diving ducks Friday morning, only some Canada Geese and a few gulls sitting on the ice. And a handful of crows came to my party.

Hot dogs always go first.

Hot Dogs First IMG_9156_1In weather this cold, make as few trips as possible. Cache and carry.

Flight IMG_9160_1

All You Can Stash…

All You Can Stash IMG_9168_1

Hold on for dear life.

Windblown Crow IMG_9199_1

Windblown Crow

I didn’t realize until I developed the photograph below that the sculpture pays tribute to the ferris wheel at Navy Pier…!

Wheel IMG_9192_1

Anyway, I’m glad I finally figured out the new image editor.

Briefly, on the home front, here’s a quick rendition of the Gigue to the Bach A Minor English Suite recorded yesterday afternoon when I was trying to see if I still remember it. If you can last until the end (it’s only about 2 minutes total) one of my spice finches sings a final note, and I decided to leave my appreciation of his contribution in the recording.

Winter music

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.

The Original Budgie

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.

More Spice Finch song from Hidalgo

Recording of Hidalgo Solo – Spice Finch Song

Recording of Hidalgo and Mozart K 330

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.

A Spice Finch, possibly Hidalgo

Baby birds beg in key with music

Little's parents allopreening, or maybe how it all started...

Recording of “Little” begging in key with Mozart

Before hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings start talking (calling) or singing (generally, if they’re males), their only vocalization is to beg for food. This starts immediately upon hatching as a faint whimper, but builds to crescendos as the bird grows.

Attached is a brief recording of the only Spice Finch child produced in my house, begging for food. I named her “Little,” not knowing whether she would turn out to be a boy or a girl. Those strong little musical “peeps” you hear belonged to Little. As for the Mozart, I was trying to learn the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, the one with the Elvira Madigan theme for the adagio, after hearing Stephen Hough play it so wonderfully with the Chicago Symphony. I didn’t have an orchestra to play with, unfortunately, only a recording of a nameless orchestra that was at its own tempo and, because I could not hear the canned orchestra over the piano unless I drowned out the birds, I gave up eventually. If I ever attempt this again, I will have to write my own cadenzas because the ones that come with the sheet music are dreadful, sounding more like Schumann than Mozart.

Long before she fledged, Little fell out of the nest onto the floor. I picked her up and put her back, urging her parents to feed her. At that time she was no more than pencil eraser. I don’t know what made her parents listen to me but they continued to feed her and she fledged, however awkwardly.

Parent with Little

Although I decided somewhere along the line that she was female, she didn’t live long enough for me to really find out. It wasn’t until she stopped begging and started getting around on her own that I realized she was physically impaired. She was missing her right foot, so whenever she landed it was difficult for her to sit without leaning over. It occurred to me this might have been why her parents kicked her out of the nest. They begrudgingly took over parenting of Little and she lived longer, perhaps, than she should have. But I think what did her in was her inability to fit in with all the adults. If she’d had siblings she might have had a better life, at least for a while, but I think she died of a broken heart. Once her parents stopped feeding her, they ignored her totally.

Little, first fledged

Hidalgo and Spice-Finch Song

Recording of Hidalgo with Mozart

Spice Finch is the common caged-bird-trade name for lonchura punctulata, better known in the field by their ornithological common names of Scaly-Breasted Munia or Nutmeg Mannikin. When I went to find my two original zebra finches, I fell in love with two of these dark brown beauties sharing cage space in the pet shop and decided I had to have them too. They were to be named Hidalgo and Sofia. Only Sofia turned out to be Sam. The sexes are virtually identical and perhaps the best way to tell them apart is to observe them for a while for behavioral cues. The males tend to sing, although not necessarily in the pet shop. Still, that should be simple enough to tell the boys from the girls.

Scaly-Breasted Munias

Three Spice Finches

But therein lies part of the problem: Spice Finch song is practically inaudible. Their call notes are distinct and easily heard above the fray, but the song is definitely not intended to be broadcast all over the neighborhood. When I did finally manage to get a couple of females for these guys, I observed song etiquette first-hand. You can see a spice finch singing easier than you can hear him. The singing male will often get right next to his intended and start singing sweetly, a rendition of his song intended just for her ears. Sometimes another male wants to hear him so he gets on the other side of the singer and leans in to listen. No countersinging going on here.

By Spice Finch standards, then, I guess Hidalgo was a loud mouth, because he was frequently pretty audible. This was way back before I had a huge flock. At the time of this recording, Hidalgo’s competition for airspace came down to one somewhat sickly male budgie and a couple zebra finches. And Sam, who didn’t sing all that much.

The recording attached to the link is in three parts. I was apparently really butchering a Mozart sonata in B-flat on this particular day, but the repetitive practicing in the first movement triggered some urge in Hidalgo to sing along a few times. That’s the first clip, and then there’s a short version of his entire song which follows the end of the Adagio. The song starts out high, “peepeepeepee” sound that drops down about an octave, goes up and down again, then goes to a clacking sound, trills, and finishes with an almost human sounding “Mwah mwah” in two descending notes. It’s quite an intricate matter. It’s fascinating to watch a Spice Finch sing too, because he moves his upper and lower mandibles constantly as if he’s carving sound in the air, strutting his inaudible stuff. I also found a little bit of Hidalgo as I reached the end of the third movement and tacked that on too, so you can hear him come in.

I will eventually find more recordings of Hidalgo in his element and share them with you. Sadly he became very ill after a year or two, and I have never had another spice finch male equal him musically. When the day comes that I no longer have budgies and zebra finches, I could be tempted to launch my own study of spice finch song.