When Clock Birds Sing | Science | Smithsonian

When Clock Birds Sing

Caution: Unexpected birdsong can cause flashbacks that lift the listener out of time and place

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My apartment has become a noisier place. Interruptions seem to come every hour. In fact, they come exactly every hour. Thanks to my offspring, I now have not one but two clocks on which the hours are represented by different species of songbird. When the big hand gets to 12, the clock plays the song of whatever bird is being pointed to by the little hand. At first, it seemed a clever gimmick, the kind of thing that is fun for a while but quickly becomes tiresome. Not so. In the beginning, I was startled every time by the birdsong out of nowhere. Within days, however, the clock birds became special. The cry of a blue jay, the buzz of a chickadee, the fog buoy call of a mourning dove, take me out of what I'm doing and tell me it's not too late, the real world is still out there somewhere. These battery-driven, mechanical devices produce nothing less than the call of the wild.

Sometimes the call is visual. It's almost shocking to look up from the computer at home just in time to see a hawk fly over the building, much less a great blue heron making its stately way over the neighboring apartment houses. Instantaneously one is taken out of whatever it was one was concentrating on and injected into a much larger world. The scale changes so fast, it must be a little like the putative inflation that happened to the very early universe. The same thing happens coming out of work and onto the Mall in the evening. If I remember to look straight up, I will be rewarded most days with the sight of gulls soaring and wheeling so high that they are mere specks of white against the sky. The world goes from two dimensions to three.

Most calls of the wild, for me at least, come in the form of flashbacks. One moment I'll be sitting at my desk as a good editor should, and the next I'm crawling on my belly over a sand dune to get a good look at the shorebirds lining a puddle at low tide. Or I'll be draped across a jungle gym of mangrove branches, watching the fish in the water below. Sometimes I'm at the rail of a ship cutting through the water, marveling at how effortlessly dolphins ride the bow wave.

Right now my flashback circuits are burning out with images from a New Year's voyage in the Gulf of California, between Baja California and mainland Mexico. (For anyone who has read Steinbeck, it will always be the Sea of Cortez.) Sea lions drape themselves over rocks as if they had no bones at all. Blue-footed boobies dive with what seems a total disregard for their own well-being. Underwater, butterfly fish, blue-headed wrasses and huge angelfish swim around rocks that have tumbled down the steep hills. Ashore, as we struggle up bone-dry arroyos, naturalists point out some of the dozens of species of cactus, each with its own strategy for surviving in a place where it may not rain at all from one year to the next. From a beach we watch a manta ray jumping out of the water by twice its body length. From the ship we see a gray whale, blowing every 18 seconds until it sounds for eight minutes and then repeats the cycle, over and over.

That last paragraph could be a capsule description of the trip, but it describes just as accurately the flashbacks that leap through my mind as I go through the routine of the days. This is not the wild calling; it's the wild showing film clips, one right after another. Something like this happens to people who do weight training. Their metabolic rate stays elevated for hours after the last weight is put away, burning extra calories. Just so, a trip itself is only the beginning of the trip. In medieval villages the church bells rang out several times a day, reminding the citizens of whose kingdom it really was. Here and now, the days are getting longer and the clock birds are singing. Shades of 50 years ago, when kids would come to the door and say: "Come on; let's play ball." It's time for me to get out again.

Bird-walking down a dirt road toward a cemetery outside Cabo San Lucas, we found three species of orioles in the same set of trees. Nothing exotic here; all three are found in the United States. Unfortunately, I could not say which was which. A smaller bird with a bright-red head flitted into view. Excitement . . . until I realized it was that pest of the backyard feeder, a house finch. The proficient among us were trying to nail down the identifications of the innumerable swallows and swifts coursing in the middle distance; I didn't even try.

In a boat at the very tip of Baja California, circling the great granite monoliths known as the Friars, we saw a small bird fishing. Put away the Peterson guide to Mexican birds; this was the same belted kingfisher that rattles up and down streams back home. On that rocky island with the sea lions and boobies we did see yellow-footed gulls, an endemic species. Right there with them, however, were turkey vultures and a great blue heron, birds I see every day in Virginia.

It would seem that I would do well to learn more about the birds and trees and flowers and butterflies and reptiles of home before venturing to exotic climes. The clock birds are all common, even abundant species. Yet for at least 6 hours out of 12, I still have to go look to see what is singing.

Maybe it's just a symptom of winter, my wanting the lushness and the prolificacy to come back. But I've felt more alive and even more upbeat since the clock birds began singing.

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