Last night was perfect. I spent much of the day in a windowless room, arguing about esoteric and complex financial issues, came home and worked myself into a lather to drive all that out of my system. Finally stopped by the setting sun, I came back to the house and stood in the dark on the porch.
Cooling off in a nice breeze, indulging in my male privilege, and watching my favorite fireworks show — the thousands of fireflies covering the yard, blueberry bushes and treeline south of the house — I was appreciative of the silence. Not a motorcycle or jake brake to be heard, just some of the night-singing birds practicing their craft. I could spend all night absorbing that — but I only got about 20 minutes before someone drove down Route 40 with their windows open and the stereo set on stun.
I never could understand our society’s pervasive addiction to background music. I blame the age of radio when all dramatic offerings included evocative music in the background. This spread seamlessly to TV. Even the cartoons we watched as kids, during the cat-smashing hour on Saturday, were scored to classical music. In any event, it certainly does cut down anyone’s ability to absorb and come to terms with the natural world.
I remain amazed that people will hike miles into wilderness areas and then, as soon as they set up camp, begin to blare music. An ad for a portable sound system in a popular outdoor magazine reads, “Bluetooth technology, Big, Screaming Sound to take the party anywhere. Chic camouflage color to blend in perfectly with any outdoor setting. Perfect for camping, the beach, even a quiet walk in the woods.”
I was especially impressed by a young woman I encountered on a popular nature trail. She was jogging, I was standing by the trail trying to get a look at the hermit thrush announcing “Ah, purty, purty” in the treetops. She stopped to ask what I was doing and allowed as how she loved to run these trails because she felt so “close to nature.” I suggested she might feel closer if she discarded the ear buds that I could hear pulsing even after she removed them to talk. “Oh I could never go outdoors without my Black Keys. They keep me grounded.”
To each their own I guess.
Everyone seems to like birdsong and those who are out and about before the sun comes up are familiar with the overwhelming dawn chorus. Listening to birds in the night sounds is a very different experience. Apart from the normal nocturnal species like owls, there are usually only a few songbird species and individuals calling in the dark, making it easy to commune with individuals.
One of the key players in a dark night serenade is the same bird I was looking for at Carter’s Pond — the hermit thrush. When these little fellows are at it in the dark, listen carefully for there is always more than one. They spend the night reminding each other that there are territorial boundaries.
When I was a child, there was a night singer you could count on all summer — the whip-poor-will. These large-mouthed nightjars started at dusk and made their distinctive namesake call steadily until dawn. Some of their relatives, like the nighthawks, were vocal as well but their contribution was only an occasional, “greep!”
The nightjars in general and whip-poor-wills in particular have been decreasing sharply across much of their former range. They require fairly open hardwoods where they pursue the moths that make up most of their diet. The line between the woods and open pasture was particularly favored. As the use of fire to keep brush at bay has fallen out of favor (it is even a criminal act in some states), invasive plants like honeysuckle, buckthorn and autumn olive have begun to get a strong foothold in most small woodlots. This destroys the open habitat required for both the moths and the whip-poor-wills.
Another thrush that was offering some song as I watched the fireflies was the American robin. This behavior was not reported years ago but seems to be becoming more common lately. Some feel the increasing ambient light is messing them up and causing the nocturnal singing. Others see it as a possibly learned and possibly genetic characteristic that has spread through the population. You must listen closely to detect the robins. It is the same whinny they make during daylight, but much more subdued.
I was hard-pressed sometimes to hear the thrushes because of another more enthusiastic songbird. Over the years, this species has been the subject of numerous complaints. Not only does the mockingbird have a massive repertoire of songs, and not only does it like to run through the entire series without seeming to stop to take a breath, but it does it every bit as enthusiastically in the dark as it does in the light. Many people open a window for a little cool night air only to have their sleep interrupted by a mockingbird whistling its lungs out in a nearby tree.
I still prefer it to The Black Keys. ...