For the Birds Radio Program: Mid-summer Sounds
If hope and optimism mark spring, suddenly we’re seeing that a lot of those baby birds that have hatched out aren’t going to be around next year. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Ovenbird,” asks the question “What to make of a diminished thing.”
There’s a wistfulness to morning now. Even as summer’s abundance is ripening and temperatures are still rising, intimations of the coming winter are in the air. As July progresses, more and more birds lose interest in singing. After raising a brood or two of young, many of our songbirds molt their feathers, and during this vulnerable period they are as quiet as possible. So the rich dawn symphony that filled the north country in late May and throughout June is much quieter now.
This softer, more subdued second movement somehow reminds me that most of the birds alive right now will be dead by next spring. Birds produce so many young each year simply to maintain a population holding pattern. When I started college, one of our professors told us to look at the person on our right and the person on our left, and said that only two of us would still be there four years later-one would have dropped out. If an average family of ten robins–a pair and their eight offspring from two broods produced this season–were to look at one another right now, only two of them could be expected to still be there next year, and the missing eight would have come to more permanent ends than simply dropping out of college. When birds return in spring, they seem to be filled with hope and optimism about the coming season. But by now it’s almost as if they’ve suddenly realized that these new little babies they’ve produced are facing a harsh and dangerous world.. Suddenly there’s just not much to sing about.
Fortunately, not all birds are ready to pack in their instruments. In the forests, at least a few Ovenbirds and Black-throated Green Warblers are still going strong in the morning, and Red-eyed Vireos still sing throughout much of the day. In grassy areas, Song and Savannah Sparrows and Sedge Wrens valiantly continue singing even though Bobolinks have dropped out of the choir. It’s hard to find Red-winged Blackbirds singing their Okalee song in marshes now, but they’re still making plenty of whistles and clucks and other call-notes.
And of course some Ovenbirds are still singing. Robert Frost understood the wistfulness of bird song this time of year, and conveyed it in his poem, THE OVEN BIRD:
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.