Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, October 11, 2010

10/10/10

(Today's radio program script)

Ever since, at some point early on in elementary school, I discovered that my birthday was 11/11, I’ve been looking forward to 11/11/11. In fifth grade I calculated that this was the day I’d turn 60, and so although normally a 60th birthday isn’t a milestone elementary school children anticipate with excitement, it has for the past 48 years or so been something I’ve genuinely looked forward to.

10/10 is a similarly exciting date. I turned into a mother and my older son, Joe, was born on October 10 in 1981. And people all over celebrated 10/10/10 with parties and with rallies for various causes. Douglas Adams fans got a special thrill, because 101010 is binary for the number 42, which is his answer to life, the universe, and everything.

I didn’t think birds paid much attention to this sort of thing. A bird’s internal calendar is based on day length and changing seasons, much as our calendar is, but birds don’t seem to have codified it as we did with the human-centered Gregorian, Julian, Islamic, or Hebrew calendars. At least, I didn’t think birds paid attention to things like 10/10/10, until yesterday.

Every October I see the same patterns of bird occurrences. Juncoes get more abundant as White-throated Sparrow numbers start to ebb. The smattering of Harris’s and White-crowned Sparrows can stick around well into the month, but most of them eventually disappear, the Fox Sparrows dwindling soon after. I see migrating kinglets every September, but they start passing through in earnest in October. This year has been no different.

But my backyard chickadees apparently decided to celebrate 10/10/10 by hosting a huge kinglet gathering. My backyard, already rich in autumnal color and teeming with sparrows and juncoes, suddenly came alive to my ears as well as my eyes. From seemingly every branch of every tree, I heard lovely triplet call-notes of Golden-crowned Kinglets. Usually Ruby-crowned Kinglets limit their fall vocalizations to their rather strident call notes, but this year I’ve heard several of them make a feeble attempt at their spring song. The sound is a mere shadow of what it is in spring, lacking both the full richness of the tonal quality and the full quantity of notes, but on 10/10/10, I heard a few of them make a rather serious if comical attempt at singing. The chickadees, who serve as the neighborhood welcome wagon for all the passing little songbirds, were also in top form. They always look a little bedraggled in August as their newly emerging feathers encased in sheaths push out their old feathers. But through September, as the new outer feathers finish growing, chickadees are also plumping up their down underwear. At their 10/10/10 party, they were at their most handsome. Their acrobatic antics added both beauty and levity to the backyard festivities.

No one fired up the grill—the kinglets were content to picnic on little bugs stirring on the unseasonably warm day, and the chickadees enjoyed both that and the vegetarian fare they found in my feeders. Whether the gathering was simply a coincident passage of significant numbers of kinglets migrating through the area or a jolly 10/10/10 celebration, it brightened my day and made me consider that even in a sour and scary election cycle, there really is a lot to celebrate on this lovely little planet.

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