Wednesday, March 21, 2012

`The Courtship Posture'

It’s a lusty, forthright call, impossible to ignore, inadequately transliterated o-ka-leeee and konk-a-ree (to Thoreau’s ears, phe-phee-e). I heard it last weekend walking past a bayou edged with cattails and rushes, the turf of the red-winged blackbird. Once I spent much of a morning seated on the bank of a swamp in upstate New York, beside a graduate student in ornithology who, with binoculars and notebook, was mapping the male birds’ territories on a grid -- randomness revealed as geometry in the service of courtship. 

A reader in New Hampshire sends a video of the Scottish-Canadian singer David Francey performing his “Red-Wing Blackbird”: 

“Safe as Moses in the rushes,
Builds his home on the river wide,
Every time I hear him singing,
Makes me feel like Spring inside.”

Like many folksingers, Francey’s voice and lyrics are a little precious but I like the allusion to Moses in the bulrushes (Exodus 2:3) and his Northerner’s understanding that the male’s song heralds spring and, by implication, thoughts of reproduction. The confidence in the red-winged blackbird’s song, its brute avian machismo, always thrills. Thoreau notes in his journal for April 22, 1852: 

“The strain of the red-wing on the willow spray over the water to-night is liquid, bubbling, watery, almost like a tinkling fountain, in perfect harmony with the meadow. It oozes, trickles, tinkles, bubbles from his throat,--bob-y-lee-e-e, and then its shrill, fine whistle.” 

The ornithologist I cited above speculated that the flamboyance of bird song often exceeds its strictly mate-attracting function. The males of some species, among them the redwing, may possess a previously unrecognized aesthetic capacity. They are, in short, artists of sound and seductiveness. In their steamily titled Polygyny and Sexual Selection in Red-winged Blackbirds (Princeton University Press, 1995), William A. Searcy and Ken Yasukawa write: 

“The importance of song in courtship has been demonstrated by experiments showing that playback of song stimulates females to perform the courtship posture that precedes copulation.” 

[Go here for a video shot last weekend showing thousands of flocking grackles and red-wings in upstate New York.]

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