Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Paleobrain and spring bird song

Note: This program first aired May 9, 2015. 
Spring, such a sweet word here on the 44th parallel. All winter long we ache for it, and then suddenly it’s here, and it is a revelation each and every year. And the revelations are for all of the senses. Visually things reappear as the snow pack melts, dog toys, garden tools, the tiny green shoots of the chives and the daffodils. When the air warms and moistens, smells return-rotting leaves, broken balsam branches, open water. Your skin knows it is spring by the warmth of the sun on your face, the softness of the humid air on your body, and the rare and joyful days when you can walk outside without a jacket. For me though, the sense that is most enlivened by the start of spring is the auditory one; as much as I love the warm air and sunlight, the increasingly complicated soundtrack of spring is the sign I love best.

Winter is a season of silence, punctuated by gusty wind, the breaking of snow laden branches and the twittering of the same familiar avian cast at the bird feeder: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, gold finches, purple finches, redpolls, tit mice, blue jays, and downy and hairy woodpeckers. During the right kind of storm, if you are patient, you can hear the snowflakes hitting the ground. Go for a walk on a bright cold morning and the snow creaks under your boot steps. Sparse is winter’s soundscape.

Spring by contrast is an every growing cacophony. This winter was cold enough that our precipitation was all snow, and the sound of the spring’s first rainstorm on my metal roof was a delightful surprise. More so than weather, the sounds of animals coming back to life are what most of us think of as the sound track to spring. Chickadees may have been singing since January or February, but the woodcock is the first bird I hear that tells me that winter’s back has indeed been broken. Next comes the phoebes, and the wood frogs, then hermit thrushes, then the peepers. I heard a familiar whistle and looked up to see a broad winged hawk pass overhead. Soon sunrise will bring with it the restless tuning of a symphony of little warblers. Our current cold gray weather has slowed the progression of spring migration, but when the sun comes back out and the air starts warming in earnest, each day will bring a new voice to the outdoor audio mix.

As this happens, I would encourage you not to worry about identifying the bird you are hearing, at least, not at first. Just let your brain do what it does best, let it tune into the sounds around you out side. Like an old fashioned radio, you just need to spin the dial to the background bird frequency and your brain will do the rest. Suddenly without realizing you heard anything, an awareness will bubble up into your consciousness that you just heard something you don’t recognize, or do recognize but haven’t heard yet this season. Many a spring morning I have been draw into consciousness, pushed out of that light early morning sleep by that just below the conscious part of my brain, as it got excited by hearing a new bird song, and had to wake me up to share the excitement. We are evolved to do this, to pay close attention to the goings on in the world around us. All of our senses, dulled as they are by modern life, have hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated  evolutionary honing for just this purpose. A couple hundred years of being industrialized doesn’t make that go away.

There’s good genetic evidence for this too, scientists have shown that humans and birds use the same genes to fire up the same parts of their respective brains used in communication. I don’t know if birds’ brains are stimulated when I talk to them as I walk through the woods, but I am sure that my human brain responds to bird song, even when I am not consciously listening to birds, and it is a remarkable experience. So this spring let yourself just hear the birds, let your brain recognize and sort out the different songs, get familiar with the patterns and then you will notice when they change. This is the brain’s true work.


Genetic evidence for birds and humans sharing communication genes: https://today.duke.edu/2014/12/vocalbird

If nothing else, listening to the birds will make you feel better: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000650