Backyard Birder

The drive to learn, birds and humans

Not to be missed: Bernd Heinrich is the speaker at this Sunday’s Monadnock Summer Lyceum, Peterborough Unitarian Church, 11 a.m.

His topic: “Nature: A Panacea to Our Problems?”

Heinrich is one of the great naturalists, inspiring university students for decades as well as readers of his many books.

His “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival” deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf. Winter is his season, real cold-latitude winter.

The tiny golden-crowned kinglet is a leading character in the book, smallest bird next to hummingbirds. The mystery of its survival — sleuthing out how a two-penny-weight bird survives the frozen winter world — was a pivotal spark for the book.

It’s best to read it as winter approaches, especially if you have mixed emotions about that approach. Gaining insights into the wonders of the winter world increases appreciation for that season.

“Panacea” is an interesting word. Nature, when observed with an inquiring mind, offers many “cures” or insights into stewardship of our planet.

As Earth goes, so go we humans and our fellow Earth-occupants.

If you’re out of town on Sunday, you can listen to a recording on the Monadnock Summer Lyceum website a few days after the talk. In person is best, of course, to give you a sense of Bernd Heinrich — as well as participating in one of the pleasing local traditions of summer.

The lyceum movement in this country goes back to the 1800s (1828 in Peterborough), waxing and waning over the centuries. Adult education was seen as essential to the moral and intellectual development required of citizenship. “To inform, to engage, and to inspire” says the Monadnock Summer Lyceum website’s history of the movement.

New Hampshire Public Radio has aired each Monadnock Summer Lyceum program the following Sunday for as long as I can remember, but that tradition might be coming to an end — reflecting doubts about our listening skills in a multi-tasking, attention-fragmenting world.

As for what’s going on in the local bird world, this photo by Meade Cadot at the Harris Center says it all. The new generation, freshly fledged, is tagging along with the adults to learn the ropes. In this case it’s a female evening grosbeak with her young one.

Our birdfeeders have hosted bluebirds, cardinals, house finches, and downy woodpeckers feeding their young, and then the youngsters feeding themselves.

Successfully fledging young birds face long odds, and each sighting of youngsters here is celebrated.

One favorite sighting occurs each summer in the butterfly bush just outside the window. Each year, a female common yellowthroat warbler shows up with her young, gleaning insects from the bushes. First visit this year was Monday, one adult and one young.

The male still sings out beyond the raspberry patch, now and again, despite the late hour in the breeding season. When he has tagalong young, he tisks his species contact notes, careful not to advertise their presence by song.

As part of learning the ropes for birds classified as songbirds, young males are learning their species songs from their fathers. What might appear to the human ear to be repetitious song shows a lot more variety transcribed as a sonogram.

Peter Marler, pioneer decoder of birdsong and animal behavior, died recently, and his obituary in Monday’s New York Times was interesting reading.

Marler was the first to apply the sonic spectrograph technology — developed in World War II to detect submarines — to birdsong. The sound waves of birdsong could be shown in a similar way as linear strips resembling a barcode. Variations in the vertical streaks indicate subtle differences in pitch, volume and duration of song.

Before Marler, animal communication was assumed to be instinctive, innate responses with little variety and little similarity to human conversation. Marler showed that many songbirds — like humans — learn a variety of songs for a variety of situations, have regional dialects, and even their simple contact calls have subtle variations that communicate different situations including specific dangers.

As with humans, babbling comes first before refinement of vocalizations.

Another of Marler’s pioneering theories had to do with the nature/nurture divide, as well as the divide between humans and other animals. Marler proposed that the drive to learn is an adaptive trait — needed for species survival — and that it’s a drive not unique to humans. He saw no great divide between Homo sapiens and other animals. It’s genetic for all, bred in the bone, nature not nurture.

After birth, nurture and environment assists that innate drive to learn new things — or impedes it.

Observing the alert young evening grosbeak in Meade Cadot’s photo, it’s hard to believe that this theory of a shared drive to learn was controversial as recently as 1987, but we humans tend to see ourselves as separate from our fellow travelers in the animal kingdom.

I suspect that Bernd Heinrich will have something to say about that.

I hope you will satisfy your drive to learn by attending his talk on Sunday.

The Backyard Birder runs every other Thurssday in the Ledger-Transcript.

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