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The Things We Make Birds Say

These phrases are from 'The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region' (1985).

I believe the rufous-sided towhee, given the choice, would rather say "Must find mate!" or "Caught that worm!" than "Drink your tea!"

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I do not believe the olive-sided flycatcher sings "Whip-three-beers!" or that the white-throated sparrow says "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody" or "O sweet Canada Canada Canada."

I believe it is only because of a heartsick early naturalist that the Magnolia warbler sings "Pretty pretty Rachel."

I believe the language thrown to the skies is more profound than "Hip hip hurrah, boys!" "O yes I am a pretty little bird," or "Chi-ca-go." I do not believe the Coues's flycatcher sings "a plaintive 'Jos Maria.' " I do not believe in the exclamation points at the end of these representations. All birds are emphatic.

I'm far more likely to believe that the MacGillivray's warbler's song is "a chanting 'tree, tree, tree, tree, sweet, sweet.' " But I love the idea of scientists sitting, listening, watching the putty-colored sea for the 47 hours it must have taken to produce this about Cassin's anklet: "Their weak, croaking song becomes a mighty chorus on windy, foggy nights."

I want to know the spring midnight thoughts of the woman who heard the male ferruginous pygmy owl's "Poip" and whistle, 90 to 150 times a minute, for three solid hours.

I love how we can't transcribe a bird that sings constantly, how we fail when describing the winter wren ("akin to a bubbling stream rushing over stones") and the curve-billed thrasher ("a long but halting carol with little if any repetition").

Because the red-winged blackbird sings "a loud, liquid 'ok-a lee!' " I can believe in one exclamation point, belonging to the birth of spring. And because the white-winged dove sings in the South, she coos "Who cooks for you all?" But what does she say in China or Belize?

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I sing the praises of the ruffed grouse, whose "voice is used only in close communication, as in the soft murmur of a female with chicks." How would human history be revised if we did likewise?

I love that the kittiwake is called "kittiwake" because that's what it says. I love how the New Zealand shearwater, the Manx shearwater, the black storm petrel, living on the high seas, are generally silent. What is there to say? Who's there to listen?

And blessed is Kittlitz's murrelet, one of the least known North American birds, whose song is undescribed. Blessed is that secret kept from us, and the opportunity, late at night, to guess how the bird makes known "It is morning, I am here; it is evening, I am yours."

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