On Wings of Song

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

For the past couple of months, neighborhoods around here have rung pleasantly with voices other than ours. The cardinals cranked up even before March did, perky little fountains spewing musical testosterone. Soon the robins were blasting away, bravely pretending to be better singers than evolution equipped them to be. Then gradually the entire local choir found its cues — mostly a raucous B-team of house sparrows, starlings, grackles, and jays.

Of course, the best place to hear Michigan’s chorus is the countryside, where the bird songs are much more varied and virtuosic. Our fields and woodlands sport an enviable array of birds, some as cheerfully gaudy as Hawaiian shirts; at dawn, the clamor of competing melodies can be both fascinating and a bit overwhelming.

As a rule, the average American probably can name the loudest or most colorful birds. Or common species like chickadees, mourning doves, and hummingbirds. Probably not grackles, however; they’re just generic “blackbirds” to most of us, their bluish sheen in sunlight notwithstanding. I confess a real fondness for grackles, however, not the least because they stride purposefully and with apparent intelligence through the grass as though looking for something in particular, like a lost contact lens.

In competition for food and space, grackles probably place about 4 on a scale of 5. These long, slender birds will eat anything from corn to corned beef, and at feeders they’re pushy, stabbing at smaller birds, spilling seeds willy-nilly. They give way to the larger woodpeckers and sometimes to blue jays, but little else. My mom and I have seen them murder house sparrows apparently just for sport. And they have a distinct frown over their yellow eyes, the overall effect of which varies from exasperation at your presence to downright malignance.

None of this helps explain why their numbers across the country fell 61 percent from 1967-2007; persecution by the agricultural establishment probably does, however, as does this country’s general retreat from an agrarian society. Lucky for grackles that they adapt so well to civilization.

Grackles have egregious sins, as do many animals. But on the whole, they’re quite likable. Their song is a cheerful, musical screech, almost like a rusty gate, and they make a variety of winsome squeaks and whistles. Besides, how many animals have a name like candy? Try Grackles™ — the tart and tangy treat!

People who pay attention to bird songs add a lovely dimension to their lives. Life could use more lovely dimensions, as you probably have figured out. And you have to wish a better fate on people to whom the songs of birds are just more background racket, like lawn edgers and barking dogs. After all, the manic tootling of robins can sound positively angelic above the incessant clanging of your neighbor’s wind chimes.

Of course, some people do successfully ignore birds, whether in the backyard or deep in the bosky dells. But eventually we’ll have to decide whether to treat birds as really important, or to ignore what happens to them. And something definitely will happen to them. Already, many songbird populations have been decimated by development of their winter habitats. The birds in your backyard may manage OK in a human landscape, but most birds simply don’t have the backbone and resourcefulness of, say, our pals the grackles. This does not bode well: Many bird songs I heard in my childhood are simply no longer out there.

This season is a good time for appreciating birds, if reward to us is the deciding factor. However, our preferences too often are dominated by economic self-interest, and this fact already has sent many species to the brink of extinction and some right over the edge. The prospect of being weighed on that scale should make even robins mute with apprehension.