For the Birds Radio Program: July Riches on a Mid-Summer Hike
There’s something about mid-summer that makes me feel rich and content. I don’t know if it derives from dense foliage, ripening fruits, gardens coming to fruition, baby birds whispering in every hedge, or just the high numbers registering on thermometers and hygrometers, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that for a time each year even north country has something of a tropical feel.
Of course, feeling rich and content can be confused with feeling swollen and indolent, which is also the order of the day when those thermometers are climbing in mid-summer. I spent some time in Port Wing, Wisconsin this week, and took a nice long hike with my daughter. We got an early start—we were on our way before 6 am—but already I was on the warmer side of comfortable. A beautiful fog hung over the pasture just beyond my mother-in-law’s place, a somewhat ominous indication that the day would be humid. I knew I’d hear at least a few bird songs, and sure enough several Sedge Wrens were singing away. But overall I was surprised with how few birds were making sounds—the only warblers who sang at all were Common Yellowthroats and one rather pitiful Black-throated Green. Robert Frost wrote a lovely poem about one warbler, the Ovenbird, which usually sings persistently longer into summer than most birds. Robert Frost said that the question it asked in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing, but even this bird had stopped singing.
Why have birds stopped singing so soon? Partly it’s just the way birds lose interest in song as they devote more and more time to keeping track of their fledglings. Once baby birds start flying, they want to go places and check out the wide, wide world—with the family wandering, there’s no need to defend a territory, which is one of the primary functions of birdsong. And once this year’s babies are raised, there’s no need to attract a mate anymore. Avian sex organs shrink to virtually nothing after the breeding season, since it’s just excess baggage when they fly. And as song grows less important, we hear less and less of it as summer progresses.
This year’s drought has probably hastened the end of the singing season, since birds stressed from heat and lack of water don’t have the extra time to spend singing and otherwise goofing off. When they get overheated, they spend their time indolently sitting about, just like us. So on my walk with Katie, the main sounds we heard were occasional little whispers of baby birds. As the sun climbed higher, the heat grew more oppressive, exacerbated by the large numbers of deer flies that were giving the birds some respite by focusing on the humans passing by. Somehow it’s just not all that fun walking and swatting at flies in the heat and humidity. But we did come upon a colony of Cliff Swallows at the beach which gave me a nice photo op and a good reason to head on home, to sit in my cool house editing photos. I ended the day feeling both rich and content AND swollen and indolent. And that’s what summer’s all about.