Durango Nature Studies will hold its fifth annual bluegrass festival tonight at Rotary Park. Since its beginning in the back of the Smiley Building five years ago, the festival has grown in size and stature. This year the bands will be Waiting on Trial, Chicken Strange and the Flume Canyon Boys. We are supported by local businesses that will provide bratwurst, beer and pizza to make it a festive occasion. More than anything, it’s a chance to kick back at the end of the summer and enjoy some music in the cool August air.
What is it about the sound of music on the breeze to make one feel happy and peaceful? It takes us back to childhood – or to a
place lacking in cares and worries. My favorite thing about the summer is to wake in the morning to the sound of birds singing through open windows. Planning our festival brings to mind the songbirds that are the true musicians of our summer months.
The most accomplished bluegrass musicians hone their craft over time, and may have innate ability for learning music. Similarly, songbirds develop their voices in many different ways depending on their species. Songbirds such as wrens, sparrows, warblers and thrushes learn their song from others.
Studies of white-crowned sparrows show that a nestling taken out of its nest at about eight or nine days and raised alone develops an abnormal song. They need an adult teacher to learn their song correctly. However, they are predisposed to learn their species’ song. If exposed to two different kinds of sparrows, they will learn the song of their own species. However, if they are exposed only to another sparrow species’ song, they will learn that song instead.
Songbirds have what is called a “sensitive period” to learn their songs, usually between about 15 and 50 days of age. After that, learning becomes more difficult. Songbirds practice singing shortly after leaving the nest with what is called a subsong. They practice quietly and become louder and more structured over time, eventually making a perfect copy of the remembered song. Like humans, songbirds must hear themselves vocalize during development to sing their song properly.
In contrast, flycatchers and their relatives are born with an inherent ability to know their songs. When separated from others of their species they grow up singing the song of their species, even when confused by listening to other species’ songs during their sensitive period.
All songbirds, or oscines, are equipped with a more complex sound-producing organ than nonsongbirds, or suboscines. Songbirds have a structure called the syrinx, which allows them to make a complex variety of whistles, warbles and trills, unlike the singular sounds of birds such as crows, for example.
Birds sing for many reasons – to attract a mate, to establish territory or simply to make themselves known. Even though humans use song to express emotions and tell stories, maybe some of those same basic motives drive singing as well. The question that haunts me about birds is whether they appreciate the beauty in their songs. Maybe that trait is uniquely human. Whether listening to birds or bluegrass, we are lucky enough to be carried through song to a place of joy or sorrow.
Come remind yourself of the power of song tonight at Rotary Park. Go to bed with music in your head and wake up to the sound of summer songbirds in the morning.