Change Your Tune | Almanac.com

Change Your Tune

Photo Credit
Len Medlock
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We’ll know her when we see her!” shouts a friend in greeting, then disappears down the hill. Who she is, he doesn’t tell me, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. She’s on everybody’s mind.

Spring comes late to this particular part of New England, this year especially. March lion and March lamb, April fool and April fury, she’s helter-skelter, everywhere and nowhere. Under the sheltered skirts of houses, daylilies are putting up three green fingerling leaves, but the nights are still frosty. Tomatoes won’t be safely planted for a month or more. And minus a stray Mourning Cloak butterfly, batted about like one of last year’s leaves, you could stand under the hemlocks for miles around and in this last week of April see nary a sign that spring’s arrived.

More and more often, it’s when I hear her that I know her. Even as the last slabs of snow hang on in the winter woods, the irregular tapping of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker brings the hiker to a stop. It’s as if he’d heard a foreign language being spoken through the wall, one apartment over. Even when he can’t make out the words, something about the cadence makes him press his ear up against the tree and listen.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Photo by Len Medlock

The sapsucker’s the Fred Astaire of woodpeckers: tap-ta-ta-tap-ta-tap-t-t-tap… The stutter-step drumming of this bird is quite unlike the metronome machine-gun of other Eastern woodpeckers. When the instrument—a hollow tree, or garage siding, even a metal roof—is resonant, the song can be heard for well over a mile. And make no mistake: it is indeed a “song.” While woodpeckers have a variety of calls (“vocalizations” to the ornithologist), most use a hollow tree as their primary instrument for attracting mates. Contrary to popular belief, such loud drumming doesn't produce the holes bored in search of insects; for this, a considered stab of the bill, powerfully delivered, is the bird’s preferred method of woodworking.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Photo by Len Medlock
(Click here for audio and video of a sapsucker drumming…)

The Ruffed Grouse also says that the times are a-changing, and also with a strange way of singing it. Mounting an old tree stump or a rotten log, the male grouse beats his wings, just once—thump—then again—thump—then again, and faster and faster, until the thumps become one continuous whirr. “The lawn-mower bird,” one friend calls it, and with reason: it sounds like a stubborn engine getting going. The thumping sound does not come, as one might expect, by any actual contact between the bird’s wings and the log, or between the wings and the breast, but is simply the sound of air rushing in to fill a tiny vacuum made when the wings are pulled suddenly outward. The sound is so low-pitched that it often registers as a physical sensation, felt in the body rather than heard in the ear. During the initial drumbeats, one can mistake the sound for one’s own heart racing.

Ruffed Grouse
Photo by Len Medlock
(Click here for audio and video of a grouse drumming…)

Then there are the true vocalists: thrush, grosbeak, vireo. But to many, a warble’s not much different from a twitter, and one chirp sounds just about like another. If that's true for you, here's a pep talk from one 111-year-old book on birdsong, intent on laying that misperception to rest:

No! never does Nature repeat herself; it is not one vast mediocre chorus, it is an endless variety of soloists whose voices, filled with tone-color…melody…expression…individuality, make up the orchestra which performs every year the glad spring symphony.”

This, written by F. Schuyler Matthews in his 1904 book Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music, serves as preface to one of the oddest and most ambitious undertakings imaginable: to transcribe, onto a standard musical scale, the exact notes each species of North American bird sings. The idea of transposing a robin’s song onto a piano, much less the scrawching of grackles or blackbirds, may seem like lunacy, but Matthews goes to it with a will, and in the arch spirit of a music critic. His descriptions are delicious. The oriole is “doubtful in pitch…even quite out of tune,” and the meadowlark, despite its name, gets panned as “a fraud.” The Hermit Thrush, on the other hand, is “as versatile in melody as a genius, and as pure in his tones as refined silver.” The Song Sparrow sends Matthews over the edge, drawing comparisons to the composers Verdi, Wagner, Chopin, and Beethoven over the course of fifteen rapturous pages.

F. Schuyler Matthews' transcription of the song of the Brown Thrasher
from Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music (1904)

The sapsucker gets no mention as a great percussionist in Matthews’ Field Book, but come April, most New Englanders couldn’t care less for melodic genius or tones of silver, however refined. They care about Her, the new season, whatever form she takes, whatever tune she taps out on the trunk of the crabapple, the bedraggled one with its head hung down, pruned by ice storms and wind storms and months of snow. We don’t need to know who she is, exactly, or when she’s coming—just that she’s coming. A new rhythm? We’ll dance to it. New air thumping in to fill the void? Sounds awfully good.  

Ruffed Grouse
Photo by Len Medlock


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