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

16 responses

  1. I love this post, Jenny, including the human anatomy chart! Glad you’re enjoying the spring. I was disconcerted by the too-warm too-soon weather for a while. But now that it is indeed officially spring, I’m just relaxing and going with our early blossoms & mild temperatures. The bird are singing here in NYC, too.

    • Thank you, Melissa. I have gone through the exact same feelings as you regarding the extremely warm weather. We are breaking one record after another! But it is quite wonderful to be able to get a lot of work done in the garden – in bare feet! – and to watch the magnolias open throughout the city.

  2. I was lucky enough, while on a hike out in the driftless area a week ago, to get to see a sandhill crane performing their mating dance. It’s made me so much more aware of the everyday songs and sights of my neighborhood bird neighbors in spring. This is a wonderful piece!

    • Thanks so much, Bix. The Driftless is one of my favorite places in the world, and I can only imagine how much more amazing it must have been with a sight like that. I’m glad you got to see it. On that farm that I worked on that was a bit south of Duluth we had cranes flying low overhead every late afternoon. They are magnificent! We would always be covered in scratches from tomato vines and dirt, and would just stop and stare.

  3. I am clueless when it comes to birds. This is, however, the first spring during which my cat will be wearing a bell. Those mourning doves aren’t the smartest living creatures on the planet, that’s for sure, and I would often find dead ones on my porch. They were gifted to me by my cat – a clumsy hunter who, without much work, was able to outsmart a few mourning doves.

    So, BIRDS OF THE WORLD – you’re welcome. My cat is belled now so if you can’t figure out that the black & white monster jingler is coming for you, well…maybe survival of the fittest applies. I have been able to tell a difference in our yard’s bird population. The mornings are much more pleasant with the chirp-chirps, usually followed by a JINGLE!!!JINGLE!!!! …then silence, and more chirp-chirps. So far, the birds are winning.

    • Haha. Poor mourning doves! They’re so sweet and devoted, probably too busy composing poems in their heads to realize the imminent feline dangers! It is good of you to grace the birds of your world with a warning bell.

      Your comment reminds me of lyrics from the Weakerthans. The song is about a cat trying to cheer up its disgruntled owner. (Not that you are disgruntled!) The cat suggests inviting friends over, adding:

      …I’ll cater
      with all the birds that I can kill.
      Let their tiny feathers fill

      Oh well-meaning, murderous cats!

  4. And all this time, I thought they were chirping for me. 🙂 The truth is, early morning is one of my favorite times of day — the soundtrack of the birds is incredibly soothing.

    • Maybe you are indeed the subject of a certain Carpenters song 😀 Yes, early morning is absolutely wonderful, especially this time of year. I can hardly keep up with all of the blooms and birds all around me, and this is only the beginning! I look forward to April and the abundance of migratory birds it will bring – so many new textures of song.

  5. This is an absolutely hilarious, educational, and all around fantastic post!!! I laughed, I learned several things, and I enjoyed your photos as well. We are hearing all kinds of birds here, and seeing the usual sparrows, our cardinal couple, and the big blue jay along with the occasional starling. The robins, chickadees, and mourning doves seem to steer clear of our yard for some reason…sigh.

    • Hello Aimee! Thank you so much for your lovely comment – and for following the blog! You’ve tickled me pink.

      I definitely believe that (very nearly) any bird in a garden is a blessing, and it seems that you’re enjoying a happy cacophony. I’m curious about the birds that you mentioned not seeing, and wonder if they show up in Brooklyn in other places? I’ve not spent nearly enough time in New York but am always interested in what’s going on down there.

      Thanks again for visiting. The transition of seasons and big changes in my own personal schedule have led to my being in a dry period blogwise, but I look forward to offering many new posts in the coming days. Take care!

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