I know why the caged bird sings

Many of us awaken with the birds, but then ignore the chirping and hooting and chee-chee-chee arias for the rest of the day. Not David Rothenberg, a musician who pulls out his sax to improvise a baseline with the tweeters. “Call the sounds of bird life music,” he writes, “and there’s plenty of place for humanity within them. Call them language and it’s a foreign tongue with no hope of being understood.”

In Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into The Mystery Of Bird Song (2005), Rothenberg considers why the bird – caged or otherwise – sings, and how we humans respond. There’s a lot of scientific analysis and field studies here , and a solid collection of musical notation and transcription, with a smaller dollop of philosophy, poetry, John Cale, winged flight and tunesmithy. About two-thirds of the way through, Rothenberg notes that scientists have moved from recording sounds to dissecting bird brains, and even deafening birds to study how musical phrases are learned.

By the end of this meditation, there is no clear answer to the why of bird noise, though Rothenberg’s bias is that of beauty.

Graeme Gibson’s The Bedside Book Of Birds: An Avian Miscellany (2005, with thanks to library donor James Smith) offers a more general-interest  tome with beautiful (and plentiful) images of birds from antiquity to more modern times. Gibson has collected up short short bits offering insight into our relationship to birds, whether that relationship be one of inspiration, of parable, or on the hunter’s need to kill. You’ll even find excerpts from medieval bestiaries.

These excerpts from far longer works touch on toucans, owls, the extinct xenicus lyalli, even the lecherous sparrow. This book can be dipped into daily for poem or prose.

Now’s the time to start thinking about colder temperatures. Feeding Wild Birds In Winter, by Clive Dobson (1981, with thanks to Jan Draper for her contribution through the Adopt-A-Book campaign), points out the bad that comes with the good: many birds now rely on food from humans to survive the tough winters.

That makes the birds less self-sufficient, but it also keeps them alive through tough times. Best of all, you don’t need all kinds of expensive gadgets and gizmos to attract beautiful birds to your
back yard or balcony. “[S]ome feed, a few feeders and patience are all that are actually necessary.”

Dobson goes through the habits of 50 birds and their geographical range – blue jays, pigeons (!), chickadees and woodpeckers. That’s followed by a look at bird edibles and feeders. Don’t use metal on feeders – remember when you were three years old and got your tongue stuck on that flagpole? Birds will suffer mightily if they brush up against metal in the cold. And remember to hang something on any windows near a feeder, since birds will fly into the unseen glass and may not survive.

Dobson makes some suggestions about how to keep squirrels away, but in the end he’s more concerned with keeping them in
their place than in the possibly impossible task of banishing the wily creatures for good.

Not all birds hang out in the Townships  for winter, of course. Snow geese skedaddle down south every fall, to return to Canada in the spring. (Danville’s delightful Etang Burbank is a particularly popular rest stop for tens of thousands of migrating feathered beasts, and volunteers post updates on the crowd at www.etangburbank.ca/. Recall that Danville’s Fete des oiseaux migrateurs is the Oct. 8 weekend.)

In the book The Snow Geese: A Story Of Home (2002), author William Fiennes is ill and depressed. He lives in the UK and has never seen a snow goose, but becomes obsessed with following their migration from the western US up through Winnipeg and to the Canadian North. And off he goes, on a jet plane, to watch the birds and chat with those humans who periodically share pond and field with them.

The Snow Geese is a delightful travelogue in which Fiennes wanders – by plane, car, bus and train — meeting up with
eccentrics along the way (a tennis-loving former nun, a guy who talked his way to the very top of the Golden Gate Bridge), and discovers his own homesickness on the way. (Some 300 years ago, he notes, “it was widely believed only the Swiss suffered from “nostalgia.” “In 1705 the Swiss physician J.J. Scheuchzer attributed nostalgia to the increase in atmospheric pressure experienced by these mountain dwellers whenever they descended to the lowlands. Scheuchzer recommended that sufferers should be encouraged to return home immediately. If that were not possible, they should be sure to climb a nearby mountain or tower.”)

Fiennes nonetheless continues his wandering, sometimes behind and sometimes ahead of the snow geese, determined to see his quest through, just as readers will want to find out how it all ends.

– Eleanor Brown, October 7, 2011

About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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