Anatomy of a Spring Morning

It’s been a little while, but I’m back because the birds are.

In my neighborhood the mourning doves are in the branches of street trees, softly moaning and ooh-OOOOH-ing. Blue jays gurgle and jeer, and the grackles readle-eak, chitip and chaw. (I’ve heard grackles’ calls described as “nails on the chalkboard of hell.” That may be, but they make up for the screechings with their exceptional intelligence and lovely, iridescent plumage.) Meanwhile, the song of the cardinal, as robust and bright as paint, saturates the morning. There is also my favorite, the robin. I sit and listen to one outside the window as he hollers his cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. I luxuriate, I sink in. Winter, even the barely half a winter that hesitatingly lingered over us for a few months, becomes more of a strange and sketchy memory every day.

The city’s pinioned residents are in one sense back, coloring in the morning with beauty and song, but they were never really gone. The doves, shaped as beautifully as 18th century cursive, the robins and jays – each one of these birds was here for the whole haul of winter. So, how is it that we’re only just beginning to hear them now?

The answer, it turns out, lies in the pituitary gland. In humans, that pea-sized gland moderates the thyroid and converts food into energy, along with a litany of other essential tasks. The bird’s pituitary gland is just as fundamental to its survival and, in the greater scheme of things, also makes a spring morning what it is.

As days lengthen and allow for more sunlight to penetrate the earth, prodding crocuses out of hiding and gracing the landscape with purples and fecundity, the light hits cells in birds’ brains which flicker certain genes to attention. These genes coddle the thyroid into activity with hormones, which knock down yet another domino by stimulating the tiny pituitary. In turn, this gland produces more hormones called gonadotrophins which, as one may guess, have a little something to do with the testes. Specifically, they prompt them to grow. This growth forces males to remember why the phrase is not just “and the bees,” and they suddenly start singing earnestly and fervently, whistling away the hours with a lusty abandon.

In the non-migrating bird’s winter, time is spent searching for food, conserving energy, and surviving. During that time these birds, with the exception of anomalies such as song sparrows and chickadees, simply lack the physiological drive to do something as superfluous as singing. In the spring, however, they devote a large part of their waking hours to performing and courting, all in a lead-up to the annual traditions of the laying of eggs and tending of young. While January and February can be incredibly trying with their cold temperatures, monochromatic atmospheres, and the stolid absence of song, it all becomes worthwhile when the birds remember how to make their melodies, and we are once again allowed to experience the sweetness and hardworking musicalities of their small and skilled throats.

What birds are you hearing? Have they been around all winter, or are they just beginning to return?

Image credits, from top:,, and

How to watch a solar storm in HD

You’ve probably heard about the solar storm that hit us in the nose this morning, pummeling earth at four million miles an hour. Holy Everything.

Here’s a video of the solar flares that erupted Tuesday, which lead to this coronal mass ejection. If you’d like to see it all in person keep your face skyward tonight – there may be sightings of the aurora in northern parts of the US.

Stories of Song and Remembrance

March has come and conquered me. Bright-eyed with the presence of song and feathers, I find myself amazed and overwhelmed, disinterested in everything save for birds, bulbs, and the heavy sweetness of remembrance.

On Saturday, despite the thick drizzle and grey, the Arboretum’s meadow was filled with music. Interspersed within the piccoloing of song sparrows, I heard red-winged blackbirds singing conk la REE. Biking in, past the still-blooming apricot tree and the more patient cherries, I found myself suddenly surrounded by those heralding syllables of spring. The male birds, with their wings that flash red in flight, are returning north from Mexico and Virginia. They’re browsing cattails and perching in the maples that border them, having a rest and shouting.

Without the birds the cityscape was only dreary, glazed with ice and the detritus of winter. My face after biking was dirty with water splashed up from the street, but the music washed me. I felt like I was sticking my hands into honey pots, like the birds were thrusting me into a baptism. Any pain cloaking my heart, any weariness or worry, was polished away, leaving me shining and awake. These birds, whom I met and first loved along the riversides of Milwaukee, were letting my soul out, were shaking and wringing away the winter, were calling me in.

That evening, I learned that someone very dear to me had died. Jim Hazard, poet, fly fisherman, teacher and coronet player, passed away on Friday. I am deeply shaken. A few paragraphs do nothing to arrive at any summation of a great man, but I would like to offer my admiration and some memories.

His writerly work offered textbook examples on how to finely craft a piece with grace, honesty, and grit. He taught his craft, and taught it well, and with gentle encouragement took me under his wing. During the course of the year that I attended UW-Milwaukee, he helped me to hone and wield my skills as a writer, offering armfuls of much-appreciated criticism and advice.

He also became a friend. After my classes with him were over we kept in touch, and eventually I also got to know his son, Bix. One afternoon while I was visiting them Jim asked if I’d been writing, adding sternly that I was not to say that I’d been merely journaling. Blushing, I admitted that that was exactly what I had been doing. In response, Jim demanded that I write outside of the cloisters that I’d created for myself. He told me that I had a craft to share and that I owed it to myself to let it out.

I’ve come back to that moment again and again over the years. Jim’s belief in my work kindled a resolve and ardency deep within me, handing me a fire that I will always cherish and tend. His kindness and encouragement were fiercely sincere and touching, and it is perhaps solely because of him that I am now devoting so much of myself to writing, striving to make something that he, and I, may be pleased with.

Other than being a wonderful teacher and sublime author and poet, Jim was also an immensely sweet, kind, and generous friend. I will always remember his warm Indiana accent and the way he glowed when he spoke of music. He was incredibly wise and vivacious and I’m so glad that I had the fortune of knowing him. My deepest condolences are with his wife, Susan, Bix, and the rest of their family. He will be sorely missed.

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