The Singing Life
Of Birds

The Art and Science
Of Listening to Birdsong

Donald Kroodsma
(Houghton Mifflin)
I can only remember three things about my dear old grandmother, who died in 1939, when I was but six years old. The first was that she always wore black, even though her husband, my grandfather --- generally thought to be a rotter (he was addicted to opium) --- had died fifteen years before. Second was that she left her teeth in the bathroom, in a water-glass that magnified the pale pink false gums, the white and obviously made-up dentures.

The third was that when she sat down at the old Baldwin up-right, she pounded the hell out of it. She sang, belting out the tunes, and she whistled! Who'd ever think this shy courtly old lady could make such looney tunes.

    Last night I dreamed of my Halley
    Of my Halley, my sweet Halley
    Last night I dreamed of my Halley
    For the thought of her is one that never dies

she sang. And well do I recall wondering, "Halley. Is there someone here named 'Halley?'" Someone I've never met, named after a comet?

    She's sleeping now in the valley
    In the valley, my sweet Halley
    She's sleeping now in the valley
    And the Mockingbird is singing where she lies...

"Sleeping in the valley," I thought. "We don't have valleys here, on the southern coast. In the Carolinas, yes ... but not here."

    Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
    Oh the Mockingbird is singing oe'er her grave
    Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
    Still singing where the yellow roses grow

"Listen to the mockingbird," she would sing, so cheerfully. "Listen to the mockingbird," she would sing. And then she would whistle, not those weak breathings that the most of us come up with, but a window-rattling fire-chief trill.

§     §     §

I have tried again and again to write down to my satisfaction what our local mockingbird is saying to us. It comes out like this:


Comes now Donald Kroodsma to tell us that you can record them, the mockingbirds, and all the others, if you must, but you are better off not to start. He says it will take you over, you will find yourself in some strange neighbor's strange backyard at dawn trying to capture the sound of the black-capped chickadee, the eastern winter wren, the red-eyed vireo, the towhee, the tufted titmouse --- a godwit god knows.

In this 500 page gorgon of a book, complete with CD, you'll find out everything you ever want to know about those songs that drift about us, "the begging calls of a young mockingbird, the calls of a swallow-tailed kite, the flica-flica-flica call of the flickers, and many more that sound familiar yet not quite identifiable."

I've often wondered if my friendly local mockingbird is really, as they say, stealing songs, if not brooding over Halley ... but Kroodsma assures me it is so, even goes to the trouble of following one young Eastern Mockingbird about, recorder in hand, as he does, noting good imitations of the kestrel, nuthatch, cardinal, Carolina wren, belted kingfisher, and then, "the sound of "machine-gun fire, a burst of six or seven shots followed by a brief whistle, then another burst of fire" --- none of which he can find in his extensive list of birdcalls.

Why, the author asks himself, does a mockingbird mock? "What does he gain by his theft, by singing the songs of other birds?" He's not quite sure, even though a friend suggests it is merely to build a repertoire.

    This may be true, but the mockingbird's close relatives seem to counter that idea --- a gray catbird can have up to 400 different songs, a brown thrasher 2,000, but few of these are mimicked, and most are simply made up, or improvised.

Maybe it is to chase away birds that will try to take food, move into its territory, but "Why a washing machine or car siren, as other mockingbirds have been heard to sing."

The author tells us that the noisy mockingbird you are hearing is probably the odd bird out, one that's young, new to the turf. Those with mates are not about to be up all night crying. He does make note of one lovely call I have heard: in the dark of the night, in the miasma of my insomnia, when I wake at three or so to hear the mockingbird mocking, the songs are slowed down, as if he is all too tired of courting, weary of letting the world know of his hunger for love, for food, for territory. A sweet, sad, desultory song.

There's a house finch around, too ... also known as a linnet. One of those that hangs around with the slovenly, common sparrow. Cese claims that this finch carries on not unlike people having a conversation. Up and down, up and down, chitter-chatter, it goes. She's right. You might as well be at lunch at the North Lakes Country club listening to the biddies singing their song of martial woe as being on my porch listening to the house finch, which, we are told, originated in Brooklyn, in 1890, illegally sprung from the jail on the porch.

Each place I have lived has its proper songs. Near the equator, it's the boat-tailed grackle chattering like a computer gone mad. Where I grew up, it was the blue jay who, thanks to Kroodsma's CD --- 97 birdsongs in all --- I get to rehear. (Another friend tells me the jays are the Hell's Angels of birds).

There are few birds who don't make conversation with you or me or each other or the world, Kroodsma tells us. The buzzard simply hisses, the Moa simply disappears. The most persistent singers he tells us are the red-eyed vireos, and the nightjar "represented here by the whip-poor-will." Those who sing the least: the jay, crow or raven. He calls the jay "a songbird without a song."

§     §     §

    How well do I yet remember
    I remember, I remember
    How well do I yet remember
    For the thought of her is one that never dies...

    It was in that sweet September
    In September, I remember
    It was in that sweet September
    That the Mockingbird was singing far and wide.

Listen to the Mockingbird," said my beloved, old, stooped, black-dressed grandma:

    Listen to the Mockingbird
    Oh the Mocking bird still singing oe'er her grave.
    Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
    Oh the Mockingbird still singing in the spring.

I did I did. Exactly as she told me ... Listening to the mockingbird, there on the sun-washed hot summer house; there, too, beside the stream of night; here, seventy years later, in the encroching darkness, next to the arroyo, there where the poor whippoorwill moans and is soon to die.

--- Gerry Trimble
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