Monthly Archives: August 2010

Bird Music: A Taste Test

While driving home from various errands yesterday, I was privy to the strangest kind of bird music imaginable. Now, I love birds. I’m slowly crowding my house with bird picture-books and histories of ornithology, which I dip into, as if they were poetry. I’m serious about getting new binoculars and I’ve even started taking them on trips with me. I think about birds in my waking hours, sometimes wonder to myself: what would this cedar waxwing do if faced with the decision of blueberry pancakes or french toast for breakfast?

And, I love music. OK, I’m partial to classical music (nurture wins, I’m telling you), but I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional country music song. I think part of the reason I like country music is that my life is always better than what I hear in the lyrics!

Yesterday, though, I heard the strangest combination of my two loves — it was called Nightingale Serenade, by Enzo Tosselli (performed by Andre Rieu). Do have a listen — it’s the strangest, borderline ridiculous combination of melancholy melody/elevator music/nightingale chirps/easy listening/”classical” muzak. If Vladimir Nabokov were around, he’d call this the epitome of poshlost’ (otherwise known as “self-satisfied vulgarity”). I nearly drove my car into a tree.

(Here’s a picture of the chirping culprit, Luscinia megarhynchos, also known as the Rufous, which I think I’ve seen, courtesy wikipedia.)

OK, maybe I’m a music snob. I did play a bird piece, a few years back, that I quite liked — Glinka/Balakirev’s The Lark. Here you have it in Evgeny Kissin’s rendition. (OK, I didn’t sound quite that good and my version was never recorded.) Now that’s music! It evokes the essence of the lark, but doesn’t slam it your face with chirps and meaningful, soulful tunes.

End of rant. Let me know which one you preferred! I’m reading up on Olivier Messiaen, aka: The Uber-Intellectual Birdsong Master Composer & Ornithologist, and will write a post on his bird tunes soon.

In the meanwhile, mark September 14 on your calendar! Birds and Words has booked Crime Writer extraordinaire, Robin Spano, for a guest appearance! She’ll be blogging about birds and writing.

PS: Does anyone know how to embed Youtube into wordpress?

Eating, not birding

I’ve spent the past few days consuming wild quantities of cheese. We just got back from Prince Edward County and the highlights of my weekend were cheese, cheese, some more amazing cheese and a rhubarb-strawberry pie, which I ate in its entirety because my husband discovered that rhubarb isn’t exactly his cup of tea. It was a delicious, if rather un-birdy, weekend.

For those of you traveling out to The County (as the locals call it), I’d really recommend a stop to Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. They make mouth watering goat and sheep cheese blends. We bought four cheeses and I devoured them rather promptly.

My all-time favorite was the Fellowship cheese, which reminds me of a cheese I loved from the French alps called Tome, quite strong, with lots of bite. It probably would have tasted good with wine, but I consumed it with perfect ripe field tomatoes instead (with some coarse salt sprinkled on top). It was the perfect summer lunch.

Next stop was Black River Cheese, which you should definitely check out if cheddar cheese is your thing. Lucky for me, it turned out I like cheddar (3 year aged) quite a bit. A brick of cheddar later, we came home.

We even managed to come home with a pound of coffee brewed in Calgary by Phil and Sebastian. We discovered it at the fabulousĀ  Tall Poppy Cafe in Wellington. I’ll admit, I bought a pound of the coffee because I liked the name. And, it’s shad grown and bird friendly, so why not indulge? We also had some wine, but to be honest, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the cheese (or coffee).

I’m now determined to find a great pie place in Toronto. There’s got to be someone around this mega-metropolis who can make a great rhubarb-strawberry (ok, I’ll even take rhubarb-raspberry) pie! HELP! I’m going through pie withdrawal. (Yes, I ate it at every single meal until it was gone. Hard work, but totally worth it.)

On the bird front, all I saw were gulls. And more gulls. There may have been some other specimens, but I was too busy consuming pie and cheese to really notice. I guess some weekends are just more about eating than birding.


I know it’s only August 11, but let’s rejoice at the fact that Fall will be here soon! I love fall for many reasons (not least of all because it’s my birthday season, which is always inexplicably thrilling). I love the crisp air. I love the leaves. I love the ephemeral feel of autumn. Things are drab to me in the summer — every day basically looks the same and is hot and humid in much the same way. As far as I can tell, the only down-side about fall is that Fall Migration isn’t nearly as exciting as Spring. I’m told that most of the birds basically look…brown. Great. So much for honing my ID skills. Ah well, at least the air will be crisp.

And with fall comes the new book season! Among the many things I’m looking forward to, let me mention two books in particular:

Birds and Words’ favorite crime writer, Robin Spano, is launching the first of her Awesomest Clare Vengel Undercover Crime Novels in a matter of weeks! I’m terribly scared of suspense and Robin’s mystery-writing is the only kind that doesn’t completely petrify me and throw me over the edge in fits of anxiety. I’m extremely excited about Dead Politician Society, which comes out in early September.

Birds and Words is in the process of booking Ms. Spano for a special guest post or a Q & A; more news to come, but we’re trying our best to be a part of her Virtual Book Tour.

In other news, Jonathan Franzen, birder-extraordinaire and totally brilliant writer, has a new novel, Freedom, coming out Sept. 1. If it weren’t for Mr. Franzen, Birds and Words would not exist. His prose is what got me birding in the first place.

But, before the end of summer, try to squeeze in these two books:

Sarah Selecky‘s This Cake is for the Party is thrilling. A lovely collection of short stories, all set in Canada. What I love about This Cake is the way it focuses on the details surrounding every day life and how it exposes people’s fragility, in relationships, especially. Awesome stories! Great looking book!

I think everybody should read Elif Batuman‘s The Possessed. It’s hilarious, summery (who wouldn’t want to read about spending a summer in Samarkand), remarkably intelligent, illuminating, tells you just about everything you need to know about Russian literature, offers amazing and sometimes totally unexpected yet convincing readings, and it’s so beautifully written that you come away wishing you had written such a gem yourself. In short, Elif’s a genius. And, for all you bird-nerds out there, you’ll be happy to know that ornithology has its place in Batuman’s book. It turns out the Russian avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who wrote somewhat impenetrable trans-sense (it’s the translation of zaum; if you think that means borderline incomprehensible, it does, but in the best way possible) verse is the son of a renown Russian ornithologist! Who knew?

Great Hair

I often struggle with my hair. It’s like I have this vision of the all-time perfect hairdo, the hairdo to end all hairdos, the Uber-Hairdo, if you will, and, well, things never work out quite as gloriously as I wish. I think I like the idea of hair more than hair itself.

So, imagine my joy when I saw dozens of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) in Luther Marsh a couple days ago! Now this is a bird with the most exquisite hairdo ever. This is a bird who never has to stand in front of the mirror wondering whether mousse or gel or some sort of pomade would do the trick and finally abandoning all three overpriced options in favor of a pony tail or, better yet, a hair clip. This is a bird who has no hair issues. This is a bird I’d love to be.

Wouldn’t you call that perfection? Cornell’s ornithology site is absolutely right to call this bird “sleek”. Now that’s self-assurance, total unwavering confidence, if you ask me. In fact, the more I look at this cedar waxwing, the more I feel it looks like the vision I have of ME with perfect hair! All that’s missing is a Tilley Hat…

Basically, that’s my new favorite bird. We also saw a bunch of Sandhill Cranes in flight, which was lovely. The purpose of our trip to Luther Marsh was to catch a glimpse of the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), a rarity here in Ontario, since it hails from Oklahoma. It has the longest tail I’ve ever seen on a bird! We waited and waited (along with about 17 other cars full of Tilley-hat-wearing folks with all sorts of nifty scopes) and when we finally decided to take a break for lunch, Tyrannus forficatus made an appearance. Our sighting was not meant to be; I’ll have to catch a glimpse of the bird with the coolest tail on earth next time I pass through Oklahoma.

We did, however, catch numerous glimpses of another member of the Tyrant genus, the Eastern Kingbird (very conveniently called Tyrannus tyrannus — I guess the bird is enough of a tyrant…). You’ll be happy to know that the tyrannus genus is fairly expansive and even includes a poor bird called the Tyrannus melancholicus (otherwise known as the Tropical Kingbird) — I love the idea of a melancholy tyrant, but it looks like I’ll have to travel to Southern Texas to see that gem, and that sure isn’t happening in 2010.

It was a great day, and nothing beat the colossally coiffed cedar waxwings.

Hermaphrodite Birds!

Yes, they exist! And they’re calledĀ  half-spiders. And they’re truly fascinating. You see, I’m reading yet another history of ornithology: The Wisdom of Birds by Tim Birkhead.

I’m enjoying it! Especially the illustrations — they’re fantastic! As you can tell, I judge (and buy!) my ornithology books by the quality of their pictures. Maybe I’m nostalgic for children’s books, who knows, or, alternatively, maybe I’m just completely shallow. Either way, Tim Birkhead sure did choose some fabulous illustrations and I highly recommend his opus.

You might be curious about the circumstances under which I acquired this hardcover 433 page gem. (I’m always curious to know when and where people buy their books; call it my voyeur instinct.) I recently attended the First Ever Toronto Kettlebell Championship (it goes by a different name, but you get the idea), and as a reward for my great interest and tolerance for a mildly barbaric sport (I’m an almost-birdwatcher, NOT an almost-athlete!), my husband agreed to explore the Junction — a nifty Toronto neighborhood tucked away in the west end, just north of High Park — with me. And guess what we found? Superlative coffee and a bookstore called Book Exchange. I like to think it was karma that the minute I walked in to Book Exchange, I came face to face with The Wisdom of Birds. I flipped through it, found the glorious pictures, and realized we were meant for each other. It’s totally possible to get that tingly first-crush kind of feeling with a book. In fact, it happens all the time.

I walked out of the bookstore completely dreamy-eyed. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I didn’t become a Kettlebell wonder-whiz or anything. I was nothing but a spectator (I’m writing a piece on the whole Kettlebell experience, so stay tuned) and saw nothing but total strangeness & supreme muscles that day. It was nice to find a bookstore and feel a little more in my element, so to speak.

Anyhow, back to Half-Spiders. Have you ever seen a bird that had male plumage on one side and female on the other? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. I haven’t either. But apparently, they’re referred to as “half-spiders”, which is a fancy, G-rated way of saying hermaphrodites. Of course, renaissance natural scientists had a field day with hermaphrodites, and my pal Ulisse Aldrovandi (who can go wrong with Ulysses for a first name?) included them in his book of monsters (1642). In fact, a cockerel was burned at the stake in Basel 1474, since it appears that the animal lay eggs. What emerged from a cockerel’s egg was disastrous — a cockatrice (part bird, part serpent) or basilisk — and had a murderous glance. Burning at the stake was huge in those days, and the anything considered remotely sexually deviant was immediately pounced upon by the Church and labeled a crime. Anything religiously subversive or biologically unexplainable called for burning at the stake. Poor cockerel!

I’ll leave you with Aldrovandi’s rendition of a COCKATRICE (Gallus monstrificus…) from the early 1600s. (Picture from here):

The only animal who could fight off a cockatrice was, apparently, the weasel. Moral of the day: Beware the cockerel that lays eggs!