Friday, June 7, 2013

Sounds in Words

Top photo by Al Griffin, Murray Lake, OK

All hail to he or she who first conceived of buzz, hiss, and sizzle, great words that sound just like their meanings. I’ve often thought of how clever those word inventors must have been as I struggle and fail to turn bird song into letter combinations.

The crow, for example. It’s one of the earliest risers here at the lake. Like a rooster on a farm, the crow cries “dawn” with its first caw. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the little knowledge I have about crows, thanks to PBS’ fine programming, specifically Nature, is that crows know us and differentiate between humans, not just categorizing them as threatening and non-threatening, but also distinguishing one of us from another, even letting other crows know what they’ve seen, who’s about, and whether caution is required. I cannot then settle for the simple caw as an onomotapoeic descriptor. Crow language is richer. The first caw may contain subtle intonations, so subtle that this human misses them. Upon seeing me, subsequent combinations of caw may announce that the old woman who labors up the hill is out and about again. What onomotapoeic word captures such a declaration?

Photo Above: Pied Crow, Dennis Donohue,

Smaller birds begin to warm to the day and continue to trill (not bad as onomotapoeic words go) throughout the day. Each song is quite distinct, however. One bird trills the word, sweeter, and others, swallows I think, seem to chatter sweetly in a rapid-fire, high-pitched whistle that many describe with the word, twitter. Mourning doves coo, according to many, but they often coo three sounds followed by two more, their rising and falling intonation seeming to say, “Who are you? Who? Who?”

Photo by Al Griffin, Moore, OK (Life after a Week of F5 storms)

Bluebirds seem to say, with a sharp, loud whistle, Oh, wow, what a day! And the brilliant cardinals clearly whistle, Whoop, whoop! followed by chuckles, or whoop, whoop, whoop that precedes a pulsing purr.

Over the lake, the gulls speak up a little behind the crow. Theirs is the sound that once emanated from early dolls. At first, it’s the mechanical sound of toymakers, then it picks up speed and pitch to blast as a screech upon the air (listen to "Short Call"). Our lone Little Blue Heron seems afflicted. His sound is as cacophonous as the gull’s. He honks and when peeved, makes a sound like an animal croaking its last.

All these noises must arouse the eagle for along it comes, usually alone, sometimes flying with his mate, each seeming to fly at the FAA’s legally prescribed height for eagles, one circling above the other. Its chatter (choose Chatter) is surprising, given his iconic stature and size, but it's high-pitched, reminding me of a gossip weighing in and passing on secrets. The cry (choose Peal) most often associated with eagles is the one sent out on the air, the one that fades in the wake of the eagle’s flight. It’s a peal or a thrust of sound against air, the sound easily, always o’ermastering air.

The ducks and coots and geese pass through now and then. Of course, the ducks seem to grunt rhythmically making a noise that only a broken whoopee cushion might make. Coots, from a distance so much like a duck in appearance, make a sound like that of a misshapen brass instrument. With each note, it must emit a final, flat tone. Geese, on the other hand, in a hurry on their way anywhere, seem to honk like an old Model-T or bark like a dog with a wretched head cold. These water fowl seem to drown out the song birds until I listen closely; the sweeter twitters and whistles continue, theirs the song upon which all else rests and theirs persists throughout the day.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

“Read” The Big Year (2011) starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. Savor the great variety and challenges in the birding world. Delight in their songs, then try to put letters together to capture the sound of just one.