Song Birds


ImageHer card describes Kristen Hein Strohm as a Wildlife Biologist and Statistician and is illustrated with a songbird (the species of which I do not know) and a warble of lambda equations and binary sets of numbers.

Last night Kristen (with her husband Steve in accompaniment) warbled something far different than lambda equations. Sweet and lilting, her voice strayed between a whisper and song. It was quiet and full in a way not dissimilar from her manner of speaking.

I bumped into her this morning as she was making her way toward coffee, her skirt stitched with swatches of fabric outlining an owl basking in the moon.

In addition to her fieldwork, Kristen also leads workshops in teaching people how to observe wildlife. Once you know what to look for, you don’t need many more tools. So much depends simply on abandoning preconceptions and investing the time to make the observations.

Kristen’s expertise begs a pet question: Did other species of birds express the same social complexity as the corvids?

It doesn’t take much to get a trained wildlife biologist going so fast that you can’t keep up with her.

The corvids are incredibly complicated, she says. They have intricate language and distinct vocalizations. She went on to describe how many species have song patterns that sound identical and repetitive to us. If you examine a spectrograph, however, you can see that these songs are chocked with microtones that are undetectable to our ears, but signal a range of meanings and references to the song birds themselves. Despite our manifold abilities, we perceive only a limited range of sound, essentially moving through the world with mufflers on. She goes on to explain how certain species of hawks hunt cooperatively and that each hawk is trained to fill a specific role: chasing, banking, cornering, going in for the kill, which they fulfill every time.

All the while as she talks, Kristen parses her sentences with the sweet chipper of bird songs, as if she herself was some hybrid genetically engineered species.

But not all birds communicate with songs, she says, and she talks about the condors, the carrion vultures that don’t have much vocal expression (at least that we presently know about), but instead demonstrate rich and complex gestural displays. As they reintroduce the condors to the wild, they bring in wild condors to tutor the young in the complex code of visual signals. The mentor condors teach the fledgelings a language that is particular to that set of birds. When at last reintroduced, the young have been known to seek out the training condors. When found, they repeat the gestures that they have been taught, including what amounts to a spread winged bow, as if expressing a kind of abeyance to the creature that taught them to be wild.

So much for coffee. Proof, perhaps, that we are, in fact, at the Planet Bluegrass Song School.

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