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Pre-dawn glee club

This morning before dawn I heard a mixed chorus of strange voices. They drifted from the marsh to the moonlit sand with a squeaky oompah that sounded like a calliope in slow motion. There was a buzz, a squawk, and a quack, not always in that order, for sometimes it was a squawk, a quack, and a buzz. The calls came from different parts of the dense marshy thicket which rims the creek that backwashes the Chesapeake Bay. But there was something in the rhythm, the tempo, the pauses, that made me feel that the callers were calling to each other , and listening to each other.

It wasn't a particularly musical recital. All in all it sounded like the rejected brass section of the beach symphony tuning up for a second chance. The buzzer was unmistakably an insomniac woodcock. The squawk was the unique voice of the great blue heron that nests in the tall pines beyond the berry bushes. The quack took some investigating, but after playing over my frog record I have decided it was the bark of Hyla cineria, the green tree frog.

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They played their songs until first light, when the heron sprang from its treetop, spread its great wings, tucked its long neck into an S-shaped curve, and sailed in the morning sun to the Eastern Shore. The little frog curled behind a damp leaf and the woodcock closed its eyes against the blue and yellow world and went to sleep. I listened on the porch in the lingering darkness. There was a long silence until the catbird rustled in the bayberry myrtle and, with a lazy chirp, began its opening prelude to the daybird chatter.

Going about my business this morning in the comfortable cacophony of sea and shorebird ditties, I have wondered what these three pre-dawn revelers were saying. Most birdsongs with which I'm familiar have to do with the everyday business of finding a mate, setting up housekeeping, and feeding the young. Blue jays will tell you if there's a tree snake in your yard and the wood thrush will occasionally serenade the woods like a fat tenor at evening, but the majority of bird comment is specific and domestic, and when the sun goes down, most of my backyard goes to bed except the crickets.

So whence comes this marsh trio with its buzz, its quack, and its squawk? Were these three most unlikely choristers tuning up just for the fun of it? In the blackness of the marsh there was no territory to protect, no mate to impress. Why a nighttime concert for such a sparse audience? During hot wet nights the tree frog will bark in the darkness, but the woodcock becomes silent at final dusk and the heron sleeps on its stilts with closed beak tucked under its blue wings. Some invisible baton must have tuned these feathered monotones, in defiance of their nature, and set them in chorus with the quacking frog. The roundelay lasted about an hour with varied tempos, long pauses, followed by enthusiastic crescendos.

Wolves will get together for a night of howling under the moon, we are told. Each wolf has his own part in the chorus, and when another singer moves to his note, he will change so that he can hear himself as well as the others. My poodle, a very distant cousin, likes to harmonize with the local fire siren, his small chin raised skyward in a second soprano howl. People mistakenly claim that a dog howls when a sound hurts his ears, but whenever I tell my pet how lovely he sounds when he's singing, he wags his tail and raises his voice to its top pitch. Choral singing is by no means an exclusively human pastime. I believe it is part of the basic nature of all contented creatures.

But my little anvil chorus in the woods was surely a textbook exception-one-night-performance that may never be heard again. Woodcocks, herons , and frogs have nothing in common except general habitat. They don't share the same life style, food, air zones, or solar-lunar time slots. They have nothing whatsoever to say to one another. But yet they sang like old pals. They sang their names to the wet night air in a syncopated tempo, in cadence, just for the joy of it. They sang about how good it was was to be alive and singing in the darkness. They sang of the primal reason for singing. And they stopped singing and the woods were quiet.

I felt as if I had witnessed the genesis of awareness, the beginning of language. I went to sleep afterward, waiting for the sun, full of wonder. There is now a new sound in the world of concord and I have heard it.

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