Lark Sparrow

April 30th, 2019: Making due with poor weather for an outdoor lecture…

Well, the weather was pretty horrible today (hence this media-light post). Instead of alternating between rainy and overcast, it just decided to change between rain and heavy rain. This was disappointing not because birding in the rain is necessarily bad, but because I was excited to be giving the first guest lecture I was going to give outside.

It probably goes without saying that most of today’s 2-hour class–at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota–was spent indoors. The classroom for this course was the interpretive center at the college’s Linnaeus Arboretum (where we hoped to spend the class). The plan was to introduce the students to the ornithological component of this “Interpreting the Spring Landscape” course. I was prepared for this possibility of course and the students still appeared to be excited about the information and concepts, which I broke primarily into “The Importance of Listening,” “Habitat and Habits,” and broadly “Appearance.” They were even taking a lot of notes (not something you see often these days).

Satellite view of Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN

I was most excited to teach the first component. As a music scholar, listening is very important to me. I try to let it inform my experience of, and interaction with, the world more than most people probably do. One of the things about birds that I think is hugely under-appreciated is their sounds. Don’t get me wrong. I know many of us listen to bird songs/calls and wonder at them, but how much time do we take to break them down; to really think about the fantastic variety across the multidimensional framework we call “sound”? The concept of “timbre” alone is a massive catch-all whose dazzling complexity simply not something most of us are even aware of.

We started with some listening outside (protected from the rain of course) and I asked students describe what they heard. If you haven’t tried this, I strongly recommend that you do so. It’s humbling for most at first, but it’s an incredibly useful tool for improving one’s listening, and generally for helping one to appreciate the aural landscape (or soundscape). One student heard a Blue Jay and tried to describe what he’d heard by mimicking it (which was awesome of course), but struggled to describe with some of the quasi-musical terminology I was trying to impart. Describing elements of frequency (pitch), rhythm, amplitude (volume), and, of course, timbre.

A Blue Jay call for example usually sounds at a medium-high frequency, it’s often a single note (no rhythm to speak of), it’s loud, and it could be described as (timbre-wise) harsh, metallic, sharp, etc. Then there are all the other individually useful, but highly subjective adjectives like angry, aggressive, direct, pointy, intense, cutting, and so on. I’m not saying one should agree with or use all of these, but the students found them very useful and us humans do enjoy more data points when it comes to memorizing information.

A Blue Jay in Kingston, Ontario

I hope you’ll permit me one more example to illustrate the point. Consider the Black-capped Chickadee song. It’s two notes are high pitched, evenly spaced rhythmically, roughly a minor 3rd apart, there’s a brief glissandos (slide to the notes) on each side depending on the individual and range, notes are medium-soft, and their pretty thin sounding to me. To my ears, their song is also meek, cute, fragile, clear, gentle (not harsh or aggressive), and sounds like “swee-tie.” (Incidentally, just about any time anyone calls someone’s name that’s two syllables, it’s roughly a minor third like a chickadee. Just think: “Mom-my.”) Now, try to forget the chickadee’s song. I know I can’t. Just like I can’t forget the opening of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony because the main theme begins “do-mi-do-so-do-mi-so-do” (half, quarter, half, quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter, half: it’s melody/rhythm are too richly encoded in my brain for me to forget. Everyone can do this with a surprisingly small amount of practice!

Song Sparrows have a vast repertoire of songs, but the timbre of all of their songs is incredibly similar, making them easier to identify by ear

Whoops. Went into teaching mode a bit there. Where was I… Oh yeah, birding! SO! Before I taught the class, I scouted the area in the morning in the pouring rain (here’s eBird list). It’s still early migration, but I got lucky on the prairie/lawn interface with a flock of roughly 30 sparrows.

Clay-colored Sparrow singing in MN

At least 20 of them were (unsurprisingly) Chipping Sparrows, but I was very pleased to see 6 Field Sparrow, 3 Clay-colored Sparrow, AND! a single Lark Sparrow. These are really uncommon in the area, but not quite rare because they do move through during migration. The stout Lark Sparrow sure stood out among the smaller sparrows and I was incredibly excited at the thought of showing the class this sparrow that was sure to impress (I thought at least).

A pair of Lark Sparrows at recently burnt prairie in Minnesota

The rain was kind enough to at least lighten a little and I took the class out for a quick walk for the last 15–20 minutes. We found the flock, but only the Chipping Sparrows and Clay-colored Sparrows. Still, I was incredibly impressed by the students’ diligence in trying to get their bins on the birds (even in the rain), remembering the songs I’d primed them with in the classroom, and asking wonderful questions! What a great group!

Hopefully, when I’m back in May for a field trip/lecture with the same group, we’ll have some better weather. At the very least, there will be a lot more birds!

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