It doesn’t matter how hot it gets; I sleep with the window open. If not, I would miss my morning songbird symphony. And the Eastern Shore is blessed with a lot of songbirds.
The largest group of musicians in my neighborhood are robins…who have wisely chosen to build their second nest high in a tree. Robins may warble the prettiest scores, so I am grateful that this section of the orchestra is so densely populated.
Cardinals like to pitch in. They compensate for their less melodic tones by being very loud and cheerful. Then there are sparrows that contribute their beautiful voices. Add some Carolina wrens and a few finches and every morning, I am awakened to a joyous serenade. Because every crowd has an offkey player, the blue jays and blackbirds are relegated to the percussion section.
Why do songbirds sing? Basically, they sing to impress or defend. Most singing is done by males and the sounds they make depend on the circumstances. Danger sounds are frequently less melodic, more chirpy…and their beautiful songs are probably reserved to charm their mates.
Not only am I delighted by these pint-sized, joyous creatures, I am also impressed. Did you know that some can simultaneously produce two notes? They can create their own harmonies. How do they do it? Songbirds have a specialized larynx called a syrinx, which puts them in a league of their own.
But most songbirds aren’t born with their repertoire. Like all classical performers, they must practice and learn from their parent teachers. Songbirds begin learning their songs while still in the nest. After leaving it, they try to reproduce these songs, practicing until they have mastered them. Some songbirds, such as the catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds, learn to mimic other species—frogs, cats, and even apparently car alarms (a skill that they should unlearn).
Every morning, every day, this chorus welcomes me to the summer, spring, and early fall dawns. It is hard to think of a world without them.
Songbird serenades are so beloved that I suspect this is one of the reasons that Rachel Carson’s book had such an impact. Its title, Silent Spring, offered a sensory description of what we would lose if we continued the path that we were on. The idea of a Silent Spring, without our native orchestra was more than we could bear.
On a nature walk, I hear these familiar voices and other species including bluebirds, thrushes, and the indomitable indigo bunting. Despite his diminutive size, he likes to rest high in a tree and loudly serenade me in a whispery voice that reminds me of a rusty old music box. If he is on a lower branch and spies me, he sings even louder…clearly a lesser voice who aspires to be soloist. It turns out that many birds, such as the indigo bunting have local accents, allowing experts to identify where they are from.
Some ornithologists argue that the wood thrush has the most beautiful voice. He is easy to recognize as he pierces the air with a song somewhat like a lower octave piccolo, so distinctive, and so melodic. He is the soloist in every choir.
While their voices are most active in the mornings, our birds practice all day. Many rest during the hottest part of the day, but with the exception of a downpour, there is rarely a moment when a feathered warbler isn’t warbling his trade. At dusk, most of the members of the chorus return.
This morning, my feathered musicians commenced singing at 3:15 AM. I didn’t mind. The robin’s spectacular melodies were the predominant theme; although I did hear a chickadee calling his lady (“hey sweetie”); and some sparrows and cardinals showcasing their vocal strength.
Listening to their symphonies reminded me of the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song, For Free. In the song, she described a lone clarinetist playing on a street corner virtually unnoticed while she contrasted it with her sold-out venues. The theme of the song was that he “he was playing real good, for free.”
And that is how I perceive these little feathered guys, they are playing real good, for free; and all we have to do is listen.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.