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The English Sparrow

The English SparrowAt my childhood home in Great Neck one day, my father, Daniel David Krakauer, was listening attentively to a bird singing outside somewhere. He said, "That's an English sparrow."

We couldn't actually see the bird, so I asked my father how he knew it was an English sparrow. He said that he had recognized the bird's call from a course in ornithology at Cornell University. Astonishing - he had graduated from Cornell in 1935, yet he could still recognize the bird's song over 20 years later. To verify his recollection, my father pulled out his collection of records from the course. This was an album of 78 RPM recordings of birdsongs, each one on a separate "cut". Note 1 

My father looked up the bird of interest in the index, pulled the proper record out of its sleeve in the multiple-record "album", put it on our turntable, and dropped the stylus at the start of the specified cut. From the loudspeakers, a deep male voice emerged, saying "The English sparrow". This was followed by a bird call which indeed sounded exactly like the bird that we were hearing outside, but which we still couldn't see.

If you want to hear what the bird sounded like, and can play an MP3 file, click here. But this is a modern recording, stolen from the Internet. It's not the actual recording from my father's records. I'm not sure where the records are anymore.

My father then said, "Let's see if we can smoke this bird out." He opened one of the sliding windows of the living room, and moved his AR-3 loudspeaker so that it was right next to the open window, pointing outside. He turned the "balance" knob of the stereo system all the way to the left, so the sound would only come out of the left speaker (the old 78 RPM record wasn't a stereo recording anyway). He turned the volume up high, and set the stylus back down at the start of the proper cut. The narrator's voice boomed out over our lawn:

The English sparrow

This was followed by the powerful call of a 50-Watt English sparrow. Note 2 

After the sound concluded, an extremely agitated male English sparrow appeared, now identifiable by its appearance as well as by its call. It flitted around for a while, silently, as if it were looking for its rival, which from the loudness of its call must have been the size of an ostrich. The sparrow then flew up to the top of one of our trees, and started singing his heart out.

After a bit, my father replayed the cut on the record. After the booming introduction, "The English sparrow", the electronic sparrow sang out again. Hearing this, the real English sparrow came down from his treetop, shut up, and ducked under one of our bushes. He stayed there as long as the other song continued. But when it ended, he again flew up to his treetop, and started singing as loudly as he was able. We decided to let him win the battle, and didn't play the cut again. He sang on for a while, and then eventually retired, no doubt extremely proud that he had scared off what must have been the largest English sparrow known to bird-kind.

To learn more about the English sparrow, I did a Google search, which came up with the web site "50Birds". It shows the English sparrow, also called the "house sparrow" to have been introduced in the New York area in the late 1850s, and to have subsequently proliferated wildly and disastrously. My friend Esther Elkin noted, "No one calls it an English sparrow any more. It's not in the index in Sibley, nor is it on a birdwatching list for Cape Cod." I suspect it was only called the "English sparrow" for a short time after it was introduced, but after it became commonplace, it came to be called just a "house sparrow".

While we're talking about birds and my father, I'll recount a story he told me from his college days at Cornell. It seems that some rather rare and impressively large bird, rarely seen, had appeared in the woods around Ithaca, New York, where Cornell University is located. Hearing about this, the New York Times told a photographer to try to get a picture of it. Not knowing how to proceed, he contacted a professor of ornithology at Cornell for advice. The professor said it would be very easy to get a picture of the bird, because he knew exactly where it hung out. The photographer arranged to come up to Ithaca to meet the professor the following day.

Now the New York photographer very often spent his time photographing New York City nightlife. Consequently, he often went to bed at two or three in the morning, and after sleeping eight hours awoke at 10 or 11 AM. Upon arriving at Cornell, the professor suggested photographing the bird the following day. He told the photographer to get a good night's sleep, and meet him at a particular site at three AM.

"Three AM!", said the photographer. "Three AM! I go to bed at three AM!". "Look," said the professor, "photographing this bird has to be done early. I know a particular branch on which this bird lands every morning at approximately five AM. We need to allow time to hike a bit into the woods, and set up your camera and the blind."

So the next morning, having barely slept at all, the photographer, bleary-eyed and only marginally coherent, showed up at the appointed time. They hiked into the woods, and as instructed, the photographer focused his camera (which was on a tripod, of course) on the designated branch. The photographer and the professor backed up into a "blind" a short distance from the camera, from which the camera could be tripped by a cable release. And there they waited.

At almost exactly 5 AM, right on schedule, the bird (apparently a creature of habit), flew down and landed on the branch, precisely where the professor said it would. But it was not a very thick branch, and it sagged down under the bird's weight, dropping out of the picture frame. "Whoops," said the professor, "I didn't think it was that heavy. Sorry. See you again tomorrow at three."

Margie and I have never gotten very deeply into bird watching, but we did once go on a birding excursion while on a visit to the Cape Cod National Seashore. This was probably sometime in the early 70s. We found ourselves on a four-wheel drive vehicle, bounding over the dunes, in the company of other people who were far more serious about birding than we were. They carried much fancier binoculars, serious bird books, and in some cases "life lists" listing every bird they had ever identified in their birding careers. Of course, we saw quite a few birds among the dunes.

A ruffThen suddenly, our truck came to a sudden and unexpected, screeching halt. Our leader, an enthusiastic young ornithologist named Brad Blodgett, leapt out, training his powerful binoculars on a rather nearby bird which was wading in a marsh. "It's a ruff, it's a ruff", he cried, and everyone else on the truck spun around and also aimed their binoculars at what looked to me to be a fairly nondescript shorebird. Some of those in the group had their doubts, suggesting other identifications for the bird. I think that was because in the early 70s, ruffs were not in fact generally seen on Cape Cod. They were European "strays", which only showed up occasionally. But from memory, Blodgett identified the bird point by point, the shape of the bill, the markings on its back, the color of its legs, and so on. As the amateurs in the group, Margie and I were amused by the excitement caused by the appearance of this fairly drab bird, which I would have driven by without a second glance.

It turned out that Blodgett was so excited because he thought it possible that the ruff had established a North American nesting ground, and was no longer just a stray. And if such a nesting ground existed, he wanted to be the one to locate it. Thus when the ruff finally flew off (perhaps to get away from about 10 pairs of binoculars), Blodgett followed it with his powerful binoculars for as long as it was visible, to see where it might be heading.

I don't know if Brad Blodgett ever located the North American nesting ground of the ruff, or even if such a thing proved to exist. But searching on the Internet, I noticed that Blodgett now seems to have retired from the position of Massachusetts State Ornithologist at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

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© 2011 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted July 7, 2011, and very slightly edited July 14, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   For posterity: a "record" (I think it's short for "recording") was a flat glass or vinyl disc with a long spiral groove on each side. Sound was recorded in each groove by impressing a transverse analog of the sound pressure wave into the sides of the groove. These were tracked by a small, sharp stylus, and electronically amplified. This was an extension of the original "phonograph" technology developed by Thomas Alva Edison, except his groove spiraled around a cylinder, and he didn't have the benefit of electronic amplification.

Early records were glass, and rotated at 78 revolutions per minute ("RPM"). But by my youth, the technology had improved, yielding the vinyl "Long Playing" record, with closer grooves, rotating at 33⅓ RPM.

At its outer edge, the thin groove spiraled in rather rapidly, leaving a mostly smooth flat ring along the edge. If you put the stylus down anywhere on this smooth ring, it would eventually drop into the groove, remaining in the groove for the duration of the play. Once in the main section of the record, the groove would spiral in more slowly, so each turn around the spiral would lie almost against the one to its outside. At the end of the recording, another rapid spiral-in led to a circular holding groove.

But in some records, there were gaps between "cuts" (the recorded sections - a "cut" might typically hold a single song or musical movement). Between the cuts, the spiral groove, with no sound engraved into it, spiraled in more rapidly, leaving a visible annular flat area wide enough for the stylus to be easily placed down on it. And that's what enabled you to locate the desired "cut" on your record.

In the more modern music CDs ("Compact Disks") and CD-ROMs ("Compact Disk - Read Only Memory"), there is also a single continuous spiral, although it is encoded digitally, and is read optically instead of with a mechanical stylus. But on CDs and CD-ROMs, the spiral starts near the center, and moves towards the outside.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Able to provide 50 watts per channel, our vacuum-tube stereo system was reasonably high powered for its time. These systems were also called "Hi-Fi's", short for "High Fidelity". The "AR-3" loudspeaker was made by a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts called "Acoustic Research".   [return to text]

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