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.

Songs of the Prairie

Springbrook Prairie landscape

I went to Springbrook Prairie this morning to join a birdwalk but I must have pulled into the wrong parking lot. Having come a long way I was not discouraged; rather, I assembled all my gear and started my own hunt for fall migrants. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear fall day early, turning warmer later.

There were lots of White-Crowned Sparrows, and I heard several singing.

White-Crowned Sparrows

I heard another bird song I am not familiar with – five even-pitch, even-beat notes and one more note a fourth above the others. It reminded me of the Mozart sonata I am relearning. I don’t think I want to go through all the sonatas again but after hearing myself playing Mozart on old tapes I decided letting a little Mozart back into my life wouldn’t hurt, break up the Bach a little. Anyway, whatever this bird was singing matches the second half of the third movement of Mozart’s first C major sonata. There has been some speculation that Mozart got the idea for his “Musical Joke” from his pet starling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a few more ideas from wild birds.

Eastern Meadowlark

And then a little later I heard Eastern Meadowlarks singing. There were perhaps a dozen, but they kept flying by so quickly I could not catch a picture until one landed in a bush. I started singing back to one of them and he sang back to me – I wasn’t trying to imitate his sound, just the notes. So even though he was “countersinging” with me I don’t think it was out of competition, but sheer fun trading licks with an inexperienced human like me.

Just when I thought I’d heard all the Meadowlark songs I was going to, one bird turned the song upside down and the four notes matched exactly the first four notes ot Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” which is a piece I played when I was a child. Don’t you know I was stuck with that in my head for the next couple hours.

A few birds who weren’t singing posed for me.

Juvenile Goldfinch

Purple Finch

Ironically, the only Song Sparrow I heard singing was a juvenile who really messed up his song. But he’ll get it right by spring, I’m sure.

Song Sparrow

Back to the wild

Immature American Robin

I’ve been trying to go through some of the older tapes, recorded when I was still able to play for wild birds. But it is the wild birds that beckon, making it hard to sit for hours at the computer when fall migration is underway outside, and the weather has been beautiful the last two days, so I have been out in the forest preserves searching for migrants. I was hearing the invention from the Bach A Minor English Suite in my head yesterday and every bird I listened to seemed to be in key with it. However this morning I was less aware of any particular musical background, perhaps due to the weather change; we had dropped 10 degrees or more. And the chill winds were keeping the birds from singing too; I don’t remember hearing much more than chip notes today.

One thing recording the birds has done for my playing, such as it is, is it taught me how to listen. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to listen, or pay attention, to yourself when you’re playing, but it often seems you might as well be doing something else. I don’t think I heard half of what I was playing until I started taping the practice sessions. Then it became impossible to not listen back to my playing as well as the singing of the birds. Usually I’m listening for a painful faux pas, to the point where I can often anticipate it, but I have also gained a lot of insight into a piece and where I wanted to go with it. And because I was doing all this with the purpose of listening to the birds and not obsessing about my playing, I’d like to think I could approach listening with a more open mind, if you will, rather than with the crippling criticism of a perfectionist. I imagine the birds have given me license to play imperfectly but as musically as possible. I would like to play as sweetly as they sound.

In the attached recording the birds are unfortunately a bit far away. This is Mozart’s C Major Sonata K 309, and a robin starts singing toward the end of the Adagio and into the third movement, and he sounds rather ethereal. The hardest thing about playing music for birds is that I want to listen to them instead of to what I’m playing. So listening has become a circular dilemma after all.

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