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Eloquence of Elementary Birdsong

Posted Jan 09 2011 5:24pm
Mrs. Thomas taught us to play it on our recorders in the third grade: A - B, as simple as it gets, so why is the song of the black-capped chickadee, repeated over and over on a winter morning, so stirring? In 1889 Bradford Torrey called the chickadee the "enlivener of our winter woods; who revels in snow and ice, and is never lacking in abundant measures of faith and cheerfulness, enough not only for himself, but for any chance wayfarer."

Hearing this bird just the other morning, its two-note "phoebe" call, while I trudged in my heavy coat, the sun barely buttering the tops of the humped, hardened snow, I couldn't prevent myself from picturing the tune emitted, not from the pincering bill of the round little bird, but from -- of all things -- the pursed lips and puffed cheeks of my grandmother, dead now two years.

Grammy was so decorous and modest and feminine a sort (so un-blowsy in every possible way) that the last thing you expected her to do was whistle, but it happens she was a fine whistler who delighted us grandchildren, whenever telling from memory one of the stories in "The Adventures of Mabel," by Harry Thurston Peck, by reproducing the sound of the Lizard King's magic whistle. Perhaps one of the things we loved about it, that short string of notes with which Mabel, once she'd learned how to make the sound herself, could befriend any animal she met, was the unlikelihood of it coming from Grammy's lips. Perhaps this unlikelihood lent credibility to the whistle's magical quality. Too, I could not whistle, not even the "funny little wheeze" Mabel makes when first she tries; in this regard, the whistle lay beyond my reach, making it even easier to believe it was truly magic.

A few days ago, crunching across the crust of the calcified snow, which in the morning light gave up its secret crystal properties, glittering now in spangled waves as I crossed it and the sun struck out a new lode of jewels here, and then a new one here, and then a next, the birdsong kept on and on.

Two thin notes, nothing more. And still so plainly, so prettily, a song.

According to "Life Histories of Familiar American Birds" by Arthur Cleveland Bent, "It is a matter for conjecture whether the phoebe note is a true song...Perhaps the deciding point in determining a true song is the manner in which the bird delivers its notes." And here he returns us most satisfyingly to Bradford Torrey, who writes of having risen early one morning in 1885 and spying a chickadee, which had lately made a home in a neighboring apple tree, standing
within a few feet of his apple branch door, throwing back his head in the truest lyrical fashion, calling 'Hear, hear me,' with only a breathing space between the repetitions of the phrase. He was as plainly singing, and as completely absorbed in his work, as any thrasher or hermit thrush could have been. Heretofore I had not realized that these whistled notes were so strictly a song, and as such set apart from all the rest of the chickadee's repertory of sweet sounds; and I was delighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus unmistakably the difference between prose and poetry.
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