Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Blue Sort of Morning

One of my favorite local birding spots has a nice variety of habitat: meadows and fields (yes, there is a difference!), a pond, a stream, a swampy area and a small marsh (yes, there is a difference!), hardwoods, conifers, hillsides, a swale, lawns and gardens, and a small farm. Living and dead trees, shrubs, grasses – all these make good homes for a variety of birds.

When I drove through there this morning, I stopped to check on the bluebirds that had recently started patrolling the nest boxes that the property owner has posted here and there across the property. There they were, like drops of sky come down to earth. The brilliancy of the male Eastern Bluebird can hardly be described. Azure, turquoise, lapis – all shimmering together on the back of this bird, whose incongruously rusty breast sets off the blue to perfection.

Have you ever heard a bluebird sing? Imagine the sweet warble of a its cousin the American Robin, slowed down and lower pitched, with a warmer, more liquid tone than the robin’s sweet clarity…the bluebird’s alto complements the soprano of the robin. I put down the car window and listened….

Another song caught my ear, further up the hillside: a cheery, irrepressible twittering, not melodic, but bright and eager. There, perched on one of the nest boxes, was a different kind of blue – a Tree Swallow. The swallow’s violet-blue wings and back, shining with bright blue iridescence, contrast sharply with the snowy-white breast and belly. Swallows spend most of their waking hours aloft, catching flying insects, so I took a good long look at this twittering fellow, standing on improbably short little legs on the nest box. This was the first swallow I’ve seen this spring.

When I arrived home, the backyard feeders were busy with the usual collection of juncos, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, and pine siskins (what a siskin winter it has been!). (The woodpeckers will be back when I can remember to fill the suet feeders.)

A flash of blue-gray caught my eye – a different kind of blue! There on the feeder was one of my favorite birds, a Tufted Titmouse. He took a sunflower seed to the wisteria bush, where he fixed it between his feet and hammered at it with his strong little bill. Soon the hull split in two, and he pulled out the kernel, letting the husks fall as he flew back to the feeder. Though this charming little bird is often described as gray, it’s really a pale slaty-blue that is especially pretty in the winter against the white and gray landscape. Smart little birds, and so attractive with their black eyes and beaks and cheeky calls.

As I watched, the birds suddenly flew up and away as a Blue Jay – a different kind of blue! – sped in like a dive bomber with widespread wings and tail, scattering the other birds with its loud Jay! Jay! Easy pickings at the now-empty feeders. No harm done; the little birds come back quickly and they all eat side by side. I love the Blue Jays; they’re smart and interesting to watch, and they are certainly one of the most beautiful birds we know. Do we take them for granted because they are so common? Next time you see a Blue Jay, take a few minutes to really study it. Appreciate the pearl gray breast and the soft white belly feathers. Note how many different shades of blue are in the back, wings, and crest; did you ever notice that? See the necklace of black feathers, which reminds me of the ancient ceremonial collars of scholars and clerics. Notice the white spots in wings and tail, beautifully displayed when the bird swoops up to our deck rail from its flight across the yard. Consider the strong bill, legs, and feet, all in shiny black, setting off that bright black eye. Lovely!

As the birds settle down to feed again, a few Purple Grackles fly to the wisteria bush, taking in the whole scene before dropping to the deck and feeder to pick up seeds. They are shyer than the other birds, perhaps because they stop at our feeders only during spring and fall migrations, unlike the other birds which live in and around our yard. These smaller cousins to our big black crows are glossy black all over, with an indescribable iridescence that ranges from bronze to purple to gold to aquamarine – a different kind of blue! Here’s another gorgeous bird, so common that we sometimes fail to appreciate its beauty.

Altogether, it was a blue sort of morning…and did I mention the purple-blue crocuses and scilla blooming in the neighborhood?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Voice Lessons

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how I went about learning my music for a recent all-Bach concert.

Birds have to learn their songs, too, and if you can catch one in a practice session, it can be pretty interesting.

Last week I heard an unusual bird song outside the kitchen window, in the wisteria near the feeders. Being very near-sighted, I developed excellent aural birding skills at a very young age, and I know the songs and calls of most of the birds I’m likely to see in our area. In fact, when I’m out and about, I locate and identify many songbirds by ear alone. (Most birders develop this skill even if they have good eyesight, but those of us who see poorly really rely on this ability.)

So…what was this song I was hearing? It reminded me a bit of a Song Sparrow’s whistle-plus-warble, but it was a bit shorter and more hesitant. Still, we do have Song Sparrows in the yard, and I had seen one earlier in the day. The bird sang again…No, not a Song Sparrow. Too choppy and strange-sounding, a bit reedy and weaker than a Song Sparrow usually sounds.

Could it have been the Song Sparrow’s cousin, the Fox Sparrow? We’d been fortunate to have a Fox Sparrow at our feeders since January; perhaps this beautiful visitor from the North was trying out his spring song before embarking on his spring migration. The Fox Sparrow’s song is similar to the Song Sparrow’s, but a little shorter and more melodious, a bit reminiscent of the American Robin in its quality of tone. The bird I heard did have a shorter song, but it was not as clear and melodious at the Fox Sparrow song.

Hmm. What could it be? It didn't sound like anything I had heard before. It was clearly a finch or sparrow song. It did not match anything in my mental catalog of bird songs, but it definitely reminded me of a Song Sparrow. Hmmm.

I heard the bird again the next day; the song was a little longer and somehow seemed more confident. (I know, I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s how it sounded.) Finally, I got to the window quickly enough to spot the songster at the top of the wisteria, illuminated by full sunlight, just as it opened its bill and sang again.

It was a Song Sparrow!

Perhaps this is a first-year bird, learning to sing for the first time. Though songs are “hard-wired” in birds brains, they still have to learn and practice.

Over the next few days, I watched and listened as this pretty bird sang and sang, and I marveled at the development in the song as he “practiced.” Now, a week later, the song – much longer, clearer, and more melodious than when I first heard it – sounds like any other mature Song Sparrow. I hope that a mate is attracted to his song and that they will nest in our yard. The Song Sparrow is one of the birds that sings early in the morning, and it’s delightful to wake up to that happy burble.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

It’s the Ultimate!

I’m always interested in how marketers use language. So often, they fall prey to common misuses, such as using popular but incorrect definitions to promote their products and services. For example, the label on a personal care product I use caught my eye with its interesting mis-use of the word “ultimate.” The product is a deodorant, touted as “Ultimate Clear.” On the label, it promises “Six Ultimate Benefits.” Wow!

OK, but what’s an “ultimate benefit”?

My Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (20th ed.) defines “ultimate” (which derives from the Latin ultima, meaning last) as follows:

1. Beyond which it is impossible to go; farthest; most remote or distant.

Are the benefits of this product remote or distant? NO.

2. In which a process or series comes to an end; final.

Are the benefits coming to an end? Are they final? NO.
3. Beyond which further analysis, division, etc., cannot be made; elemental; fundamental; primary.

Are the benefits beyond analysis? Are they elemental? If so, elemental to what? NO.

4. Greatest possible; maximum.

Ah! This must be it. Maximum benefits. The marketing team must have had this fourth, less-frequently used definition in mind, thinking, as many people do, that “ultimate” means “best.” But here again, the meaning is most, not best.

Consider, too, the synonyms that my dictionary offers for “ultimate” – final, terminal, conclusive, and eventual – these clearly imply a sense of finality and ending, not of superior quality or size, as implied by “maximum.”

Related to this common misunderstanding is the frequent mis-use of the word “penultimate” by people who thinks it means “better than ultimate.” Wrong! Penultimate means “next to last" (from the Latin pene, meaning almost, and ultima, meaning last).

Still wondering what the “six ultimate benefits” of this product are? The label poses the question, “What makes it ultimate?” The answer, given in six bullet points, promises 1) wetness protection; 2) odor protection; 3) stays on skin (!); 4) moisturizers; 5) smooth and silky application and 6) beautiful fragrances.

Hey, wait a minute! I bought the unscented version, so I can’t even enjoy last-named benefit, the final one on the list, the ultimate benefit! Now there’s an irony.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Heavy Lifting?

You know how some businesses adopt names that start with “AAA” or “Acme” to ensure top listing in the alphabetized listings in the Yellow Pages? Well, recently I saw a name for a local company that just made me laugh out loud. Obviously the person who thought up this name hadn’t had enough coffee that morning! Here’s what I saw on a great big delivery truck in Hartford, Connecticut, recently:

AAA Batteries
Delivered and Installed

Think about it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

California Quails in Connecticut?

As someone who loves birds, I naturally take notice of how images of birds are used in advertisements and other corporate communications. Sometimes the effect is stunning and effective, such as NBC’s introduction of a stylized peacock in 1956, used at first to promote its color broadcasting, and later to represent the variety of its programming. That made sense.
The other day as I was running an errand, I passed a service van for a local posh hotel/resort, the Avon Old Farms Hotel located in Avon, Connecticut. The hotel logo painted on the van caught my eye; it was an attractive, stylized illustration of a California Quail. Here’s a link to the company website, where you can see the logo at top left. Isn’t that nice?
Lovely, I thought; a quail is a nice logo for a country hotel/resort. Nicely done drawing too, with the jaunty top-knot. Real panache. (You can search “california quail” Google images to see photos of living California Quails. Pretty, eh?)
Wait a minute — a California Quail?
Why did the hotel and its designer choose the California Quail, a bird that lives only on the West Coast, to represent an upscale hotel in the wooded hills and rolling farm fields of north central Connecticut??
Why not choose the equally lovely BobWhite Quail, the only quail native to Connecticut? It’s just as beautiful and has been a favorite with New Englanders for centuries, with its stunning coloration and inquiring “Bob - - WHITE?!” whistle. (Search "bobwhite" in Google images to see photos of this endearing bird.)
I wonder if a local graphic designer chose the California bird? It probably wouldn't matter if the designer were local or from Mars. I can picture a design team sitting around a conference table, reviewing stock photos of birds and choosing the one with nice visual appeal regardless of its relevance to a Connecticut-based business. Of course, most people don’t know a quail from a quark, and even if the designers were aware of their error, they probably assumed that most people wouldn’t know or care. However, just five minutes of online research, or a call to the Connecticut Audubon Society, library, or nature center, would have caught the error before it became formalized.
Whenever I think of this hotel now, I will think of their silliness and ignorance.
The Bob White’s numbers are declining as more farmland is eaten up by development. It would have been nice if the hotel had adopted the local bird for its logo, then contributed to conservation programs that would ensure the quail’s survival.