Fleeting Greetings of 2017

millennium-park-cardinal-12-28-16-5958

Millennium Park Cardinal 12-30-16

This year is off to a slow start. I very much wanted to do a blog post honoring my indoor crowd which has been getting along fine, or so I thought. At least they seemed to be doing fine for a while.

Below is a short video I was able to capture in the gloom of the afternoon’s diminishing light just so I could isolate my Zebra Finch Arturo Toscanini singing his song, which starts with an arpeggio and goes from there. Below that you can hear him again before I start playing the Adagio to the Ravel Piano Concerto in G which may put you to sleep if you listen to the whole thing but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I went back to the Portage on New Year’s Day. It was much colder and sunnier than the week before and the birds were harder to find, but I counted as many species with a couple variations from last week’s list. All I have to show for it is ice and a distant Downy Woodpecker.

The birds in the backyard have returned to the feeders. I’m convinced the numbers of House Sparrows have fallen drastically, but they tend to fall off anyway in the winter. It was nice to see a couple Goldfinches and my own Downy Woodpeckers.

Before I went out birding, I chased Emerald Greenwald away from Dudlee’s latest nesting attempt (I gave in to Dudlee’s badgering me weeks ago and let her have the mug back but didn’t make it comfy for her) – not sitting down with myself long enough to figure things out, like the fact that Greenwald herself had approached reproductive age – and hoped for the best.

I came back to a bloody mess. Nobody had hatched but the eggs were broken open and bloody, nesting material the doves had accumulated themselves was everywhere, and Dudlee and Drew were looking the worse for wear.

greenwald-1-1-17-0736

Emerald Greenwald, covered with evidence

drew-and-dudlee-1-1-17-0750

Drew and Dudlee, still in shock  – “How could you do this to us??!”

This has created a terrible silence. I don’t know when if ever Drew will start singing again. I had grown quite fond of his chiming in with any pretty music he heard on the radio all weekend. I like to imagine he might get over it but I don’t know if Dudlee will. To make matters worse, she seems to have a damaged right wing – it’s droopy. She was hiding in the kitchen last night, I’m sure she doesn’t feel safe anymore, even though without a nest I don’t think Greenwald is interested in bothering her. I may try to catch Dudlee and put her up in an infirmary cage for a few days, since she can’t fly very well anyway.

On a happier note, it’s always fun to watch a Society Finch tackle a piece of corn.

And there’s always time for a good bath in the pie plate.

I hope to be back soon on a happier note. Best wishes to everyone for a healthy new year. Whoever thought we’d make it to 2017? Stay tuned!

yard-dowp-1-1-17-6196

Thoughts on Songs for Birds

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

(All the photographs in this post were taken at Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago on a couple afternoons last week…and have nothing to do with the content.)

It was a somewhat quiet weekend, with plenty of time to sleep and reflect. I had only one mission, and that was to drive into the city on Saturday morning to take my guitars in to Chicago Fretworks for repair. I have been thinking about doing this for years, only to somehow talk myself out of it with that inner voice that asked, “When are you going to find the time to play?” and knowing full well that after not having played for more years than I care to admit, it would be worse than riding a bicycle after a long absence, for the frustration of trying to build up calluses on my left fingertips alone.

Clouded Sulphur Lurie 8-5-15-8464

Clouded Sulphur

But a number of forces have converged to light the fire under me to start playing my guitars again. Perhaps the most significant force is a need to respond to all the insanity. It has been and will always be wonderful to play piano, but I miss the guitar for the intimacy of cradling an instrument on my lap, with the vibrations of the strings going right through me. This is how I will write songs again. Only this time, they will be songs for birds.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

I trust the indoor crowd will bear with me while I regain enough facility to sound not too bad. I have fewer expectations of any prowess than I did when I went back to playing piano, so it shouldn’t be too humiliating. Then there lurks in the back of my mind the thought that eventually, weather permitting, I could play music for wild birds again. Even if it means coming downtown on a weekend, I would love to play music for my crows. And by that time have something else to sing for them besides “There is Nothing Like a Crow” to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

The forces that have converged? I am giving credit at this point only to the positive ones. Falling in love with David Wax Museum. Not wishing I was young and on the road again, just finding so much in their music to explore and connect with. The music is infectious, and David Wax’s lyrics are often priceless. Personal Anthems.

Hearing Mavis Staples interviewed twice on NPR: she talked about singing protest songs for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sense that music had a purpose beyond music. I don’t necessarily aim to inspire anyone, but I feel the need to protest the insanity. To make noise. And this is the only true way I know how.

American Lady

American Lady

If there can be any silver lining in the disappointing fact that Operation Rubythroat’s excursion to Guatemala in November–which I was looking forward to–has been canceled due to lack of participation, I will have more time to play the guitars and the cost of rebuilding my Guild 12-string will be less painful!

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Making music is good for an old body, too. All the pains and inconvenient stiffnesses that were making my life miserable, no doubt in a negative response to the insanity, seem to be floating outward, released, wafting in the air, or in the case of swimming, lost to the water in the pool… I can almost fly. If nothing else, my heart will soar. With the birds.

P.S. The pictures in this post are not related to the topic but I suspect they’re not totally unrelated either?

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

A View from the Futon

Finches in the Window

Finches in the Window, from the futon perspective

There’s a lot to be done around here and I am doing absolutely none of it.

View from the Bridge downtown

View of the Jackson Blvd. Bridge from the Adams Street Bridge downtown, with the cell phone

I was improving Tuesday with my right knee when that same night coming home on the train an unfortunate move put me out of commission, so I was forced to take Christmas Eve off from work, which produced little on my end except for a lot of indoor bird observation, reading the paper online, accepting sympathy from friends and succumbing to naps. I did play a little piano.

As I’ve been sharing a lot of time with the indoor birds lately, listening to the begging sounds of new baby birds has been the highlight of my existence. A reminder that I have to get better because I have birds to take care of. And I will do anything for my birds. Even if it hurts.

Zebras 12-21-14-9064 Zebras 12-21-14-9059

We were promised a break in the clouds for Christmas, after the promise of rain turning into snow did not pan out. The sun did manage to peek out from the clouds this afternoon, which greatly improved our moods. It has been so dismal and gloomy (or “glismal” as my mother used to say), I think we broke the record for days in December without sunshine.

So I listen to the baby birds: the Society Finches, who sound like you would imagine baby birds to sound, and the Zebra Finches, who sound like someone shaking a box of pins, that grows gradually louder day by day. I have taken to calling them The Pins. You can hear them helping me read through a little Bach D minor prelude (the last English Suite, finally). The next time you hear them they will be twice as loud.

And the songs and personalities of the new finches are starting to reveal themselves. I have decided to name the two male Zebra Finches Arturo Toscanini and Ricardo Muti, seeing as how their songs have yet to be formed enough for me to write them out and provide lyrics. Arturo has been working diligently on his song and it is the most developed. I suspect he is the alpha male. The clip below is of Arturo singing with a little Mozart.

I am also feeling a little better about my Zebra Finch matchmaking, it seems to be working out. At first I thought it was stupid of me to throw two males and two females together and expect them to get along, and they seemed to be out to prove me a jerk, but now they seem to be getting along more than they chase each other.

Tina 12-21-14-9067

Tina in the nest

Trevor 12-21-14-9056

Trevor

 

Things were not so rosy with the Society Finches either. I had Phoenix and Rikki, the two hens from before, and introduced Trevor and Tina. Phoenix and Rikki abducted Trevor after a while, and at one point Phoenix seemed to be taking over Tina’s brood, but I think everybody is together for the common cause now. Tina is back in the nest, although when she does come out she proves to be a beautiful bird. I am looking forward to seeing the offspring. I have not been able to determine whether Trevor has successfully mated with either Phoenix or Rikki although I thought I caught him trying once with Phoenix. Phoenix and Rikki are finally over the shock of realizing that I am not throwing out eggs, as I did for months before with their previous crowd, but that’s a long story. Now I have all young birds and they should reproduce while they can. Below is a clip of Trevor singing with a little Mozart.

Blue, the Budgie, and Dudlee, the Diamond Dove, take refuge from the finches together. Dudlee manages to find new hiding places, and she throws her voice when she coos. I have a hard time locating her, especially when I’m less mobile.

Dudlee

Dudlee

I have simply decided that the only approach to the knee, besides seeing a surgeon for his opinion in a couple weeks, is to get as much rest as possible, do whatever physical therapy exercises are feasible, and walk as carefully as possible. Stairs are now a terrific challenge and I am trying not to mess up my other knee by asking it to bear all the weight. I suspect in part getting a shot in the right knee was a gamble because I now have pain at the point of insertion. But as bad as my memory for it is, I got through all this once before and so I should be able to do it again. And embrace the reminder that I am not invincible. There’s much to be done, or not done, while prone.

Lastly among other things I have had to give up since this incapacity took hold, I regret not making traditional food gifts for the holiday. I used to do a million cookies, but in the last few years I have tailored the baking effort to several loaves of cinnamon oatmeal raisin bread, but this year if I manage to get to it at all it will be for the New Year’s Day instead.

The only time I got behind a camera lens that wasn’t my cell phone was last Sunday, when I managed to get a few pictures of regulars who visit the yard.

DOWP 12-21-14-9012

Downy Woodpecker

DOWP 12-21-14-8996

I hope to be back soon with something more cheerful than a bad knee report. Hope your holidays are much merrier!

Squirrel 12-21-14-9037

How I started playing music for birds

Recording made 7-5-2011, Bach A Major English Suite excerpts

When I went back to playing piano years ago, I never dreamed I’d be playing music for birds. But the birds were listening. This blog will be about my discoveries from sharing music with birds and all they have taught me. It’s an ongoing project: I’m still learning music and from my association with birds.

It all started when I renting an apartment on the third floor of an old six flat. I had not played for years, and I couldn’t play music for my own enjoyment because my expectations were too high: I had no technique, had forgotten how to read music, and I wanted to sound like a concert pianist. Yet I had talked myself into playing again purely for physical reasons; I was losing strength in my hands to arthritis.

The first frustrating time I sat down to play I could remember only the prelude to Bach’s B-flat major Partita, and it seemed like a place to start. I turned on my Fender Rhodes piano, leftover from almost 8 years on the road playing Top 40, and started to play. The window must have been open, because I recall a Mourning Dove landing on the sill. He started to sing along. I was horrified and shut the window on him. I don’t think he gave up that easily, he was back on the sill on the other side of the closed window.

Fast forward a few weeks, months, I began learning the Partita again, and the music was beginning to call to me. Now that I was starting to play, I wanted to share the music. Music is not meant to be played in a vacuum, it is an expression to be experienced by others. I bought a tape recorder so I could make tapes and send them to friends. But that soon became a lonely, frustrating business, driven by the impossible quest for perfection. I couldn’t balance my joy in being able to make music again with what I perceived to be other people’s expectations of it.

The next step was to find another musician through Classical Music Lovers Exchange; we carried on a whirlwind long-distance affair for nine months that he cancelled, but he left me with the idea that the birds were singing along with the music. I might have been peripherally aware of this, and left with nothing but his pronouncement, I decided to check it out myself; after all, if they were singing along, they must have been listening, so I would play for the birds.

I had no idea who was in the chorus. In the true spirit of adventure, I put things I thought birds might eat out on the window ledge to draw them in. And in they came. House Sparrows, European Starlings, Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Blue Jays, even Dark-Eyed Juncos and eventually an American Crow I named Elvis.

Once I got used to the birds, it was like being in heaven to play for them. They became the ultimate audience, because they were drawn to the music, and they participated in it.

Inspired by Vladimir Feltsman’s rendition of The Goldberg Variations which he played in recital in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, filling in for an ailing Rosalyn Tureck, I decided to learn the Goldberg. It was while practicing the opening aria that a Mourning Dove–possibly the same one I had shut the window on a couple years before!–started singing, intent on being able to sing along with the piano. But I knew his song to be in C. The Goldberg was in G, at least most of the time. It was difficult to listen to the bird and play at the same time but I had the sense he was singing in key with the music. I got some microphones and started taping the birds singing along with my piano practice. On playback, it turned out the birds were always in key with the music.

I have been taping my piano practice with bird accompaniment ever since. I have a lot more to say about all this and it will take me many posts as I go through hundreds of tapes, journals, correspondences.

Warning: This is not about my piano playing, it is about the birds singing along with it, so I ask you to please pardon the mistakes and stumblings. The birds also have a tendency to talk or sing a lot more when I’m first figuring out something, I suppose because the newness of it (after hearing the same thing over and over again for weeks) intrigues them. Unfortunately this means I will put listeners through the excruciating first readings and stumblings on my part.

I have inserted excerpts from a recording made this morning. We’re learning Bach’s A major English Suite presently. The birds in the background (and if one lands on a microphone, in the foreground) live with me in my house.  I am no longer equipped to play for wild birds (although I will be going through the old tapes to find some remarkable examples). The indoor crowd consists of Budgies, Zebra Finches, Scaly-Breasted or Spotted Munias commonly known as “Spice Finches”, and a couple of Society Finches. The Budgies are rappers. The Zebra Finch males each have distinctive songs, and they sound a bit  like little nasal tin horns. The song of the Spice Finch is too soft to be heard over all the other birds, but I do have recordings from the first Spice Finch somewhere when there was less competition and I will be posting when I find; the Spice Finches do have musical whistling calls, however. The female Society Finch sounds like a turning ratchet, the male whistles and sings loudly when inspired to do so. I’m still learning the tape-to-MP3 program so this may sound a bit disorganized.

And it’s not all going to be Bach, there’s Mozart (thanks to the birds’ encouragement, I trekked through all the piano sonatas), some Brahms, Ravel, Schumann and probably more.