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Molnar: Bird Chorus

06/27/12 5:55PM By Martha Molnar
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(Host) Most of us look for birds with our eyes, but they can also be "seen" with our ears, as discovered by commentator Martha Molnar, a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont in 2008.

(Molnar) I'm walking through heavy morning fog, alone in the world. Each step opens a small circle of visible air that closes with the next step. But I don't need to see with my eyes, because I've been learning to see with my ears.

Once, the vast bird chorus that reaches its climax in the spring was just a pleasing cacophony. I hardly thought about the hundreds of individual birds in their dozens of varieties that produce the entertainment. But after living through several Vermont winters, I celebrate each returning bird. I hear the robins first, and a couple of phoebes engaged in a duet. Then the red-winged blackbirds and the swallows return en masse, and the few bluebirds. Finally, toward the end of May, the bobolinks return, turning our fields into an ecstasy of drunken song. 

Those of us who have never studied music can still enjoy it. But I imagine that the listening experience is very different when you can unravel what you're hearing and appreciate the beauty of a melody, the complex blend of instruments and voices, the rhythm, the texture, the key changes. This applies to art and writing as well. I've watched artist friends arrested by individual brushstrokes, and writers by a particular phrase that others skim over.

But paying attention over time can make up for lack of formal training. And so I'm slowly learning to untangle the bird chorus, learning to recognize its individual voices and its particular arias. I can easily distinguish the sharp whistle of a robin from the mellow one of a bluebird, and the musical chip of a warbler from the cooing of a dove. At first, I didn't recognize the scream of the red-tailed hawk or the chatter of the oriole, but knew these were new sounds. And I consulted my trusty guidebook to identify them.

Today, I can "see" each nearby bird as it calls its warning at my passing, and beyond these, many of those that now populate the fields. I'm proud and happy... but also worried and fearful... because while they sound plentiful, each year the returning birds are fewer, and they're hardly heard any more in the nearby woods.  Our songbirds are victims of a perfect storm. They're being decimated by pesticides and loss of habitat, here and even more so in their winter homes in Latin America.

Part of the answer lies in our eating habits. Produce imported from Latin America is three to four times more likely to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards for pesticide residues than the same foods grown in the United States. Those luscious raspberries you buy in January mean fewer of our birds returning in spring.

To care about the birds, we have to know them. So I walk, listen and pay close attention to the richness all around us - as I learn to hear with my eyes and see with my ears.

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