Walking Home


Little Chickadee
Following me home
Chatter, chatter, chick-a-dee-dee-dee
Sing your song
I answer
Your song, again
I whistle back
You improvise, a test
I follow you
To my door

Last night the weather was imminent, we had been warned all day of possible severe thunderstorms, hail, flooding – and none of it, despite the trains being delayed, had yet come to pass. I was a block and a half away from home when a Black-Capped Chickadee I never saw recognized me and started chattering. I answered him in the English transliteration which is really not very accurate, but he understood anyway. And then, as I reached the corner of my block, he continued by singing his “Hey, Sweetie” song. By now he was following me. I whistled back to him. He sang again, and I answered. In front of my house, from my neighhbor’s tree, he decided to see if he could trip me up by singing an alternate version of his song, in another key, going in another direction. I mimicked him again. Back to his old song, only this time in a higher key. He almost had me there, I can only whistle so high. But what an incredible exchange!

I hated to close the door on him, but after a while I had to go in. Although the weather did not “start” for at least another half hour.

I just felt like it was worth a post to commemorate this exchange with the Chickadee. He is very likely one who shows up at my feeders and chatters in my ear when I’m in the yard. He also knows that I listen to his song whenever he sings it, and I respond to him. This is not counter-singing, he knows I’m not another Chickadee on his territory. This is communication. Two musicians, hamming it up. He must think I’m pretty smart for being such a large, flightless creature. I am flattered to be included in his dialogue.

Apologies for the picture, it’s old and the wrong season, but it’s all I could find spur-of-the-moment.

Zebra Finch Song: Zorro

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.

Lakeside notes

Lake Erie sunrise

Part of me is still in Lakeside, Ohio. The Midwest Birding Symposium which took place there September 15-18 was great fun, filled with a lot of nice people, interesting presentations, and a delightful atmosphere. We went out looking for birds every morning. The Bach A Minor English Suite would not leave me alone as we walked around the trails. As I reviewed the prelude in my head, I noticed my brain would stay stuck on whichever part enhanced the notes the birds were singing.

Not that I was constantly running the experiment, but later Saturday afternoon I was standing in line to ask Louise Zemaitis a question after her excellent presentation on birding by habitat (she had intrigued me when she said she was surprised there were no fish crows in the area; I didn’t even know fish crows were this far north and she told me they are in Pennsylvania, so I live in hope), and there were old big band jazz tunes playing softly in the background after her talk, before the next presentation. I found myself listening to the conversations ahead of me change seamlessly from the key one song was in (G major) to the next song (E-flat major). Both keys share G so it’s not a big stretch but it was fun to listen to the pitch of the voices modulate. Of course I put that away when I actually got to talk to Louise. I’m trying not to be annoying and nerdy about this, but sometimes I wonder if anyone else pays attention to what key anything is in.

When I got home fairly late Sunday night, my birds were silent, pretty much as I had predicted. They get really quiet before I leave, and then when I come home, I get the silent treatment until I settle down into something they can relate to, like running water in the kitchen sink, messing around in the kitchen. Maybe they are on guard until they are sure I’m really back for good. Fabrizio was the first one to break the silence, singing his little song. Then I heard a budgie chirp or two and we were off and running, into the night, cleaning the house. As much of a chore as it is, I like cleaning the birds’ room because it’s so dirty I feel like I’m accomplishing something, but more because I get caught up with the birds and how they’re doing. They know the routine, so the ritual should have reassured anybody who had doubts about whether I was staying home.