Meanwhile Back at the Portage

Fox Sparrow, Chicago Portage

Fox Sparrow, Chicago Portage

I am nearly finished going through all the Costa Rica photographs, I think, but in between it seemed like time to check in with the local birds over the holiday. The weather was still warm and pleasant last Sunday, so I visited the Chicago Portage. I was the only human for the first forty minutes or so. I had no expectations, which is my general approach to the Portage – that way I can always be pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be a nice visit, with Fox Sparrows predominant of the 19 total species I encountered.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Dark-Eyed Juncos were present, and they have been in my backyard regularly since the beginning of November. I don’t know if I’ve seen American Tree Sparrows at the Portage before but they were certainly well-represented. And White-Throated Sparrows, a little harder to see here than they are in the city but I got at least one to cooperate.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

On the way out, I couldn’t help but notice the growth below.

Shelf Fungus

Shelf Fungus?

Downy Woodpeckers are always present at the Portage. Sometimes they are easy to see, other times not, but somehow the camera managed to capture this one in flight.

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Female Downy Woodpecker

Perhaps my biggest surprise was to discover pictures of a Red-Bellied Woodpecker feeding on dried berries, entangled enough to show off its red belly. I honestly don’t remember taking these pictures but I must have. Unless now the camera has completely taken over my brain (beware the warnings about artificial intelligence).

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker, in a more likely pose

The Portage itself is always in a state of flux and it looks like this now.

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Also on the way out, about when I thought I would never see a chickadee, this Black-Capped Chickadee and a few of his buddies were foraging in dried stalks that complement their coloring perfectly.

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Black-Capped Chickadee with a worm

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Another view of the Portage and its low water levels. No birds in the water at all. There was one Canada Goose on the lawn by the parking lot and five flew over but nobody came down to hang out in the creek.

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One last photo of the Fox Sparrow who is at the top of the page. Fox Sparrows come in different races across the country (Sibley identifies four subspecies and says they’re sometimes considered separate species). The one we get here is the “red” Taiga race and this guy certainly fits the description. I just checked the Cornell website and they mention 18 subspecies within 3 or 4 groups. They are not always so easy to see, so I suppose you could spend a lot of time and effort trying to track down different types of Fox Sparrows across the continent.

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More to come from Costa Rica, and eventually a report from the home front.

Frozen in Time

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Why, why, why do I

Always think I

Have more energy

Than I do?

Ice on the Chicago River

Ice on the Chicago River

Why, why, why do I

Think I’ll do

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More than I’ll ever

Get around to?

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Thursday’s heat wave

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Twenty-four seven

Four-thirty a.m till eleven

The days are way too long

Ring-Billed Gull, downtown Chicago by the river

Ring-Billed Gull, downtown Chicago by the river

And yet they fly

So quickly by

Can’t help but live them wrong

Chief Nemesis on my feeder

Chief Nemesis on my feeder

It’s only when the clock stops

And I am in the moment

That life comes by

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Looks me in the eye

Red-Breasted Merganser on the Chicago River

Red-Breasted Merganser on the Chicago River

And says what it so meant

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American Robin, Cancer Survivors Garden 1-31-14

Life is quick

Life’s a kick

Life can be expendable

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What we share

Can take us there

And always be commendable

OH NO not more SNOW

OH NO not more SNOW

During the week and even into the weekend, I find myself distracted by too many multi-tasking thoughts. So to stop and be in the moment is priceless and irresistible. I think it must be what I love about taking pictures. I am trying to freeze a moment in time, in memory. I am also paying attention, so that inhibits the clutter of distraction. So that must be why it felt so good to pull the camera out on the way in to work the last two mornings–after two weeks of working through lunch or barely getting out at all–to stop and shoot at the river’s edge. It’s a creative process, too; the excitement of seeing something that looks like a potential photograph and trying to capture it with the camera, it’s a vision, however momentary. But it also takes me out of myself and I focus on the subject. And that is why I love birds so very much: they make me forget about me. Reminds me of that line in Joni Mitchell’s song, “All I Want” from the Blue album, “Oh I love you when I forget about me.” But with the birds it’s different. They also remind me of who I really am, without that act I have to put on during the work week.

The ultimate peace is to be relieved of one’s constant mind. I think they used to call it “Nirvana.” (No, this is not intended to be a musical reference this time. 🙂 )

Mourning Doves in my neighbor's tree

Mourning Doves in my neighbor’s tree

P.S. This House Finch was supposed to be in this post but she somehow didn’t make it.

Female House Finch

Female House Finch

Bird Brains

It may still be hard for some people to get their heads around the idea that birds are pretty smart, especially when the epithet “bird brain” had the connotation of stupidity for so long. The conclusion there, of course, was that size matters, and birds have small brains and therefore are not too smart, or that they behave solely by instinct and have no capacity for reasoning. Ha! is all I have to say to that. I was first attracted to birds by their intelligence. They were smart enough to appreciate the music I was playing, for instance.

While the current theory still leans toward comparative brain size, i.e., the larger the brain case in relationship to the rest of the body, the more “intelligent” the creature, right away making crows, ravens and parrots the geniuses of bird species, I have found finches are quite smart. No doubt Darwin was onto this.

Of course the only way we have to gauge another species’ intelligence is by how it interacts with us, which is pretty one-sided when you think about it. But I’ll admit I don’t have a clue how you figure out what birds are talking about to each other, at least 95% of the time, so it is only when they’re trying to communicate with me or vice versa that I can observe their “intelligence.”

I can already take for granted when I tell a bird something that it will respond to what I’ve said, or to what I’ve thought is more like it, but when a bird tries to tell me something and I try to figure it out – now that’s something. Generally this situation says something about my lack of intelligence. The birds are a lot better at understanding me than I am them.

Photographers Beware

This past week, as I was walking up the hill out of the park to get back to work on my lunch hour, I noticed a man had stopped to take a picture of something in a tree. I don’t think he was photographing birds. A squirrel maybe. Anyway, when he had the shot, he started walking down the incline into the park with his friend, but was immediately accosted by a handful of House Sparrows. Needless to say he was taken aback. While the House Sparrows didn’t attack him, they pretty much were, I suppose you could say, in his face. The men kept walking and so did I, but I know what was going on there. Um, you see, the House Sparrows associate cameras with people who might have food. I wonder how they come to make that assumption… I admit I sometimes feed the House Sparrows, although my primary targets are the crows, and I’m usually not taking pictures of the House Sparrows, although they are the most willing subjects, again because they associate the camera with food. I wish I could run a little Rupert Sheldrake-type experiment to see if House Sparrows do this in any other park besides Daley Bicentennial Plaza. His theory of morphic resonance could be tested here. Basically the idea is there is a collective intelligence and therefore if a group of House Sparrows have learned to associate cameras with food in one place, they might very well do so somewhere else.

Squirrel Evasion

Of course the crows are so smart they have me well-trained. Nevertheless the other park birds have learned to pay attention to the crows when I’m around because it sometimes means a payoff for them. And just like your backyard, the squirrels show up too, and they are a main competitor for peanuts. This week I observed the juvenile crows figuring out how to fake out the squirrels. We all seem to have figured out the squirrels don’t have very good eyesight. I can put a pile of peanuts on the ground and a squirrel will run right past the spot if he didn’t witness the drop. Usually if I throw a peanut to a squirrel it will distract him from a pile of peanuts. In one instance last week, shortly after I had put peanuts down for the crows, a squirrel showed up, and the juvenile crow that was following me around walked away and pretended to be interested in something else until the squirrel left. The same day, the white-winged crow was still more interested in eating his peanuts than stashing them, but when a squirrel tried to take his peanut away, he flew off and stashed his booty.

Cage Etiquette

At home, I have something going on with Ferdinand, the male Society Finch, that has been puzzling me. Friday night is clean-up night and part of the routine is to move all the finch cages away from the windows so I can clean up the papers and the floor underneath them. Ferdinand and Isabella, cage-created birds that they are, think there is nothing more fun in the world than when I put the middle finch cage on the dining room table, swap it out for a clean cage and leave it there so everyone can have their evening snack while I’m cleaning the living room. The other two cages are set aside in the front hallway and are the last things I clean.

Well, last Friday I was very tired and even though I know this routine so well I can do it in my sleep, I made the mistake of thinking it was time to put the first cage back when it was too soon. I corrected myself when I realized I had to hang the curtains first, but Ferdinand seemed to be reacting to my first thought, because he flew over and landed on the floor where the cage was supposed to go. He insistently kept alighting all around the cage area. I got the curtains hung and then moved the first cage back, after which I cleaned the other two as usual, and done with the big chore, I had my evening snack and went to bed.

This week, even though I started the chore a bit late because I was detained half an hour at work, I wasn’t mixed up in my thinking, but Ferdinand seemed to be. He flew over and landed on the floor again, before it was time to move the cage back. He also started flying up to the wand of the vacuum cleaner, as if he wanted me to move it out of the way. What kind of strange game was he playing? After I talked to him, he went back to sit with Isabella on the perch in the cage that was still on the dining room table. When it was finally time to move the cage back, he flew up on top of it and took the “ride” to the corner that way.

I thought about all this the next morning: Ferdinand was trying to tell me something. Perhaps he is trying to be my general contractor. According to his schedule, I should have been putting the cage back a lot earlier than I did. Perhaps Ferdinand thinks I am intelligent enough to try to communicate with because I always pay attention to his song when he sings it. Therefore I must be educatable, however long it takes. Ferdinand wants me to know he knows all about cages and where they go, and as far as he’s concerned once the papers are on the floor the cages should go back. Society Finch indeed. Whose society is this?

I try to run a democracy here, but I am the chief cook and dishwasher.

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.

Playing Music for Birds

In the beginning, when I was still fascinated by the fact that I had found my true co-conspirators in birds, almost anyone I talked to about it, this idea of playing music for birds, told me I should write about my experiences. I was fortunate enough to find a place to publish what I eventually wrote in Ted Rust’s Music For The Love Of It which he published online and also by subscription mailing for several years. The journal was primarily dedicated to the creation of chamber music, and Ted was an avid chamber musician and composer. His instrument was oboe, one of the birds in the orchestra. Although he has stopped publishing, Ted has been good enough to keep his archives alive and the link goes to the issue that carried my first published article.

Somewhere in those endless Google searches for “birds and music” I discovered Beatrice Harrison, a renowned British cellist whose recordings of playing her cello for the nightingales in her garden were broadcast over the BBC, which became known as The Cello and the Nightingales sessions.

I would have loved to have had a conversation with Luis Baptista, the famed ornithologist who had an ear for music and suggested that Mozart’s “Musical Joke” was inspired by his starling. Alas Dr. Baptista died in 2000, just when I was beginning to make my own connections between bird song and the music I was playing. You can listen to an interview with Dr. Baptista on Pulse of the Planet.

David Rothenberg has written the beautiful book, Why Birds Sing, in which he has thoroughly researched the connections between bird song and human music. He was inspired by his experiences of playing his clarinet with birds responding. And if you want to know more about bird song, there is no better introduction than The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma, whose writing I first encountered in Living Bird, the quarterly magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He wrote with such eloquence about the song of the Winter Wren I had chills down my spine.

I also had a brief correspondence years ago with John Baily, who studied ethnomusicology in Afghanistan for years. He wrote me the Afghans like to bring their caged birds to live music events for the birds to sing along, and that they believe that the birds are singing the many names of God.

As much as I am dismayed by how very few humans pay attention to birds, I am reminded that until I discovered birds personally, I did not acknowledge their existence either in the real world. But there is a lot of information out there, and now that bird intelligence is finally recognized (I suspect the idea of “birdbrain” was perpetuated by some humans who felt outwitted by birds), studies increasingly suggest we have far more in common with the avians than we thought. It was Fernando Nottebohm’s study of canaries and how they change their songs from year to year that caused scientists to reconsider their ideas about the human brain and cell regeneration.

Birds got me to think a lot more about music and how it all started, and how it is that we can share so well the indescribable experience that only music represents. I hear more music now that I’m listening to birds than I ever heard before, and I thought I was a musician. Birds have also taught me a lot about humans, not just by bird-human interactions, but by observing birds behaving among themselves: I am all too often reminded of our own “animal” instincts. But here I go again, straying off topic. I must go back to exploring the tape library where more hidden gems await transference into mp3 files.


I suspect if I had not lost and regained my inner soundtrack, I never would have given it much thought. But maybe it’s true to that you don’t know what you have until you lose it. For instance, going back to playing piano alone after so many years was so much more than just starting over again. After I got past being disappointed that I had no technique, I became very aware of the rusty connection between my fingers and my brain. It was as if the neurons were all reconnecting with new wires, where the old ones were frayed and disintegrated, and I was sitting there watching it happen. Then as I learned to play a few things again, I realized that my fingers themselves had memory stored in them. Like a dancer whose body memorizes the movements of a dance, my fingers started to memorize the choreography involved in playing a piece, and I slowly began to rebuild an inner music library.

Then there was my soundtrack. Once I started playing again, it was always there. Sometimes it was annoying when I realized that the song my head kept going back to was whatever I was trying so hard to learn. For years I woke up in the morning with a fragment of a very modern piece I played years ago and I have never been able to find it again. But now I woke up with whatever I had been reading through the day before.

I found I could put my soundtrack to good use and practice while walking from the train to work. Never having enough time to practice, this could have been handy. All I had to do was start playing the music in my head and my fingers would follow; I could feel little pulses in my fingertips as they went over the fingering they had memorized. This connection has always been there. Or it was always there until I stopped playing.

Imagine how delighted I was to read of Daniel Margoliash’s study that found zebra finch males likely rehearsing their songs in their sleep. Here was something else I shared with the birds. They had music running around in their heads day and night too!

I had a little zebra finch whose name was Eduardo. He was a “solo” finch because he had no immediate siblings, and he used to sit in the kitchen window and practice his song. I got to listen in on his attempts at songwriting while I was cooking or washing the dishes. He worked on his song for weeks, maybe months. Although he was within earshot of the other males in the dining room and living room, I always felt as if he was called to pay attention to some other source, perhaps inspired by the view of the backyard garden, or just savoring the solitude of having his own special place in the sun to work on his composition. The outcome of all this was that he came up with a very different song than everyone else. Other males who had siblings had inidvidual songs but they had similarities with each other, which indicated there might been a group dynamic at work as well as their learning from their father.

I hadn’t exactly planned to start talking about zebra finch song in detail yet, but when I locate good renditions of all my zebra finches’ songs I will put them all up here. There has been an amazing variety. And by working in Italian names with their songs, I could recognize each and every one of them.

Something else my brain does on music: if there’s a song that goes with a spoken phrase or the appropriate mood, it will start playing it. Don’t ask me how many times the Rolling Stones popped into my head with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” My brain will use a song as an editorial comment. There have been times when I felt as I was assigned a particularly mindless task at work and quite out of my unconscious came the strains of “M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.” I realize this dates me, but those of you who grew up with The Mickey Mouse Club will now hear it playing too.