The butternut chronicle: Nov. 5, 1998

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


Thirty-seven degrees and clear at a quarter till six. Again, I’m dazzled by the sight of the crescent moon hanging close to Venus: not something one is likely to get too many opportunities to enjoy in the course of a lifetime, much as we may like to think otherwise.

The moon’s down to its last little sliver, and the dark portion glows dimly with earthshine. I think I remember reading that it was Newton who first correctly identified this effect, which seems awfully recent for such a basic insight. But perhaps it was too counter-intuitive. The effects of the moon on the earth are many and undeniable – ask any woman. Even the land has measurable tides. The moon, in turn, is in thrall to our much greater gravitational pull. Should it surprise us, then, that its nights are brightened with the light reflected from this benighted planet?

At six the sound of a pickup truck: one of our hunter friends, parking over at Margaret’s. Fifteen minutes later a pair of great-horned owls starts dueting farther down the hollow. At 6:18 the first twitter of a songbird – probably goldfinch. At 6:20, a second hunter’s truck. By 6:30 I can hear the full compliment of songs and calls from sparrows, nuthatches, wrens. The owls fall silent. A single deer grazes just in from the wood’s edge, near the tulip tree – a yearling, by the look of her. Chances are she’ll make it through this hunting season unscathed.

Three song sparrows engage in a singing contest. The reductionist view that says birds sing to attract mates or mark territory hardly does justice to the countless uses to which a single song may be put, I think. But is it really accurate to consider this (or any) birdsong as one, basic theme capable of several variations? Sonograms reveal many differences from bird to bird and song to song indistinguishable to a human ear. And even the variations I can tell apart are enough to maintain my interest.

At any rate, ornithologists say an individual song sparrow may sing between six and twenty-four different songs. I listen as the closest of the three, perched in the French lilac bush, varies his song over the course of several minutes. Nasal at first and a little slurred, it turns more and more crystalline, as if to match the rapidly brightening sky.

Series Navigation← The butternut chronicle: Nov. 4, 1998The butternut chronicle: Nov. 6, 1998 →

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