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Column: Birdsong, one of life’s great pleasures

This morning I hear the gentle tinkling of dark-eyed juncos. A dozen glean the snow and slowly spreading bare ground in the birdfeeder area for cast-off tidbits. They’re migrants on the move, pushing north with the thaw. A sign of spring,

Juncos sound like the ring of a telephone in the Bogart-Bacall era, but it’s probably time to retire that memory trick when helping others to learn birdsong. I’ll be doing that in a couple weeks in a birding-by-ear workshop open to all. Recognizing the voices of birds we share our backyards with is one of life’s great pleasures.

Three consecutive Monday evening sessions at the Peterborough Library start April 22, 7 to 8:45 p.m. Weekend field trips will follow. Cosponsored by the Harris Center and Peterborough Library, there’s no charge but a contribution to your favorite conservation group is encouraged. There’s no need to register. Just come on along with a notebook and field guide in hand.

I offered the first workshop 20 years ago when I was new to birding but inspired by a birdsong workshop I’d taken at New Hampshire Audubon. I remember well my panic as the room at the library filled up — way up. Here’s what I wrote about that evening as a chapter in a book I was working on at the time:

“When I offered a birding-by-ear workshop in April, the room filled right up for the first session. ‘More people than at Town Meeting,’ said one man as he sat down. Standing at the front of the room, watching the clock, watching the room fill, I began to feel queasy. Some in the audience were experienced birders; I had expected newcomers. How could I possibly excite and challenge them? My lesson plan suddenly seemed disjointed and uninspiring. By imposing my order on the lively world of birds, I realized I had tamed that world.

Start-up time arrived. In the best voice I could muster, I talked about migrants that were beginning to show up in backyards, males first and why, and why only males sing, and so on. After the introductory generalizations, the first ‘birdsong’ I played was the drumming of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, recognizable by an irregular, hesitating cadence. Some humor and energy stirred in the room. They had expected to hear melodic birdsong, not woodpecker percussion. I explained that birdsong is defined more by function than tunefulness. If you hear a woodpecker, he or she is communicating territory or courtship or both; foraging and nesthole excavation are quiet endeavors.

Their faces subsided back into a blank, inert state as they waited for me to stir them again. While the CD chickadee vocalizations played, I sat down with my back to the faces, feeling even more queasy, even more like an impostor.

A friend I used to work with had a saying that always brought humor to our on-the-job panic situations: ‘Magic carpet, take us away.’ In the absence of magic, another strategy came to mind, this one from my mother, a tennis player who didn’t like to lose: ‘Always change a losing game.’

I gave myself a quick lecture about nervousness being self-centered. People had come out, not because of me, but because of the small creatures seen out their windows; because birdsong signals a welcomed spring rebirth; because they wanted to learn birdsong to honor their birds. We shared common ground, but as I stood at the front of the room with a lesson plan in hand, I felt separate from that common ground. As a CD phoebe squawked his last ‘fee-briet!’ I abandoned the lesson plan, walked down an aisle among politely attentive faces, and asked for questions as well as for their observations about their backyard birds.

A man asked if Cedar Waxwings might be in the area. ‘Yes, always,’ I said. These nomads can show up anywhere, anytime, but especially in June, back for the breeding season. Several people had field guides. They looked up Cedar Waxwings, then passed the guides around. I could hear quiet exclamations around the room as a few people discovered these beautiful birds for the first time.

In some loose stream of consciousness, I began to talk about a man I know (the husband of my ‘magic carpet’ friend) who enjoys mocking me and my field guides. ‘You people,’ he says, referring to unimaginative types like me who go out looking for wildflowers or birds or trees clutching our field guides, intent on memorizing names. Jim Haddock goes out, sees a wildflower, and names it himself. ‘Fringed Sunburst!’ he’ll yell, inhaling its essence. He sees a bird: ‘Red Epaulets! Salute that bird!’ More than once his mother, Doris, has memorized a Jim name, thinking it the official one, only to be corrected when out and about with one of us field-guide grippers.

I told the group there are all kinds of ways to approach the world of birds. Jim Haddock doesn’t need to know who the singer is to appreciate the song, perhaps a Veery from deep woods at evening time; or a Yellow Warbler, bright and early from the edge of wetlands in willow scrub. I said that memorizing a bird’s field guide name allows us to share what we learn about a bird through conversation, or reading, or writing, and can lead us on to deeper discoveries, stronger connections. The spontaneity and exuberance of Jim’s approach remind us to keep our field guides tucked in hip pocket, not clutched in hand. We should experience the real thing as thoroughly as possible before turning to the book version.

The workshop conversation that first night never strayed far from Cedar Waxwings. I told the group about the time Carl and I gave waxwings a Jim name. Hiking the Wapack Trail a few summers back, we heard their sighing songs whenever we reached open patches of blueberry and ledge. Our pace always slowed as we searched the pine and birch edge for a glimpse of waxwings. After deciding to give them a Jim name, we debated awhile, then agreed on ‘Crested Velveteens.’ Just right. We still use the name.

I also told the group about neighbor Mona’s apple tree, the time it was so alive with courting Cedar Waxwings and shimmering blossoms. I have many stories about waxwings. Perhaps of all the birds, they lured me closer to the point of no return as a birder, ‘ticketed for the full voyage’ that William Burroughs wrote about after being ticketed by a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

The workshop flowed on. People talked about their birds, asked questions, I played more CD songs including Cedar Waxwing, of course, not easy to hear until you know what you are listening for.

Suddenly it was 9 o’clock, time to send the people home. I tried, but we kept on going another half-hour, inspired by birds. A magic carpet had arrived after all, delivered by Crested Velveteens.”

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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