For the Birds Radio Program: New Orleans
On August 10, my husband Russ and I went to New Orleans to observe hummingbird banding. New Orleans is known for a lot more than hummingbirds, so the first night we took a walk through the French Quarter. It reminded me of walking in the North Woods on a perfect morning in late May. From every doorway came music-jazz, blues, Cajun-as rich an assortment of happy sounds as you could ask for once the spring and early summer chorus of birdsong has quieted for the year. New Orleans’ peak season happens while it’s still winter in the Northland. Mardi Gras usually falls in February but apparently the breeding season in the French Quarter lasts year-round. So we heard a lot more music there than in the woods and bayous we went birding in.
That is not to say that all the music we heard in the French Quarter came from people. Underfoot were plenty of pigeons, one sipping a bit of leftover mango daiquiri from a cup dropped in a gutter. Human applause at street musicians was matched by pigeon wings clapping as they flew here and there. And Chimney Swifts flitted in the skies overhead making their lovely chittering sound. A handful of Purple Martins winged among them, and for a few hours there was also a lovely migration of nighthawks. The sky seemed as lively and happenin’ a place as Preservation Hall itself while these dainty birds with their delicate wingbeats coursed overhead. They seemed as affected by the pulsing street music as I was-some of the males performed display dives, plunging at top speed toward the buildings and streets below with abandon, pulling up at the last second, as jolly and reckless as the human revelers below.
Our last night in New Orleans, we headed back to Bourbon Street to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We stood in line for an hour before the doors opened, listening to the lovely dissonance of half a dozen street musicians and band music drifting from clubs and restaurants, along with the chittering of the ubiquitous Chimney Swifts.
A great many creatures on this rich and lovely planet produce and respond to sound male frogs and toads make all manner of nocturnal songs, crickets stridulate, coyotes yip and wolves howl, cows moo and produce more milk when farmers play Mozart in their barns. But with all that sound, the two groups of animals that seem to have their very bones permeated with music are birds and humans. Much of our music is inspired by birds, from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to that old standard, “When the Red-Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along,” which not only makes the American Robins its subject-it also takes many of its rhythms and melodic patterns from the robin’s song.
Except for that uniquely wonderful bird, Charlie Parker, my thoughts of Bourbon Street have always been more about human music than the avian variety. But now that I was actually there, breathing air molecules that perhaps had once passed through Satchmo’s trumpet, hearing the same calls of swifts and nighthawks and pigeons that must have filled the air when he was alive, I found myself appreciating my roots in millions of years of musical evolution. I was filled with delight to be in this happy place where humans and birds sing and dance and fill the evening air with lovely, lively dissonance and joyful expressions of love and longing in a city pulsing with music and life itself.