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Sun, 21 Jun 2009

Birds In The Morning

How do birds know that the dawn has arrived? It's not just roosters, many birds know this.

I'm sure they basically know the sun is coming up the obvious way: by seeing the brightening of the sky. But the thing is, they are such accurate and confident detectors of this brightening.

If you don't believe me, do this.

Pick a day when the moon sets well before sunrise: a waxing half should do. Set your alarm clock a couple hours before legal dawn. Get up at that time. Make yourself your morning beverage of choice. Dress warm (don't forget your hat), go out in the yard, sit in a lounge chair, sip you drink, and wait.

If you don't dally too much in your preparations, you should make it outside when it's still pitch dark. Unless you live very close to a city, it should also be quite silent. Listen for the sound of birds. There shouldn't be any. Look for signs of a brightening sky. Again, there shouldn't be any. Keep listening. Keep watching.

I will wager that the first thing you detect will be the chirp of a bird. Then two chirps. Then a whole cacophony of chirps, squawks, and shrieks. As you are marveling at the variety and bold certainty of these noises, suddenly you too will realize that, indeed, there is the most subtle of brightening in the East.

I have no idea how birds do this. It's incredible to me. Someday I'll meet an ornithologist and ask. They must have done studies with birds in dark rooms with lamps and dimmers. Are the birds always watching with eyes open. Watching, watching, watching for the dawn, then yelping for joy when it arrives.

Or, perhaps, are the birds set on biological timers, internal alarm clocks. I wonder if they anticipate the sun in the spring as the days get longer, and would be tardy in their chirping after the summer solstice.

Why aren't people like birds? Maybe we are. In so many ways we watch and watch, eyes open for all sorts of subtle things. But often when those things arrive, we keep watching, unsure if we should act. We doubt the perception. Is that really the sunrise. Could it be my neighbor opened his refrigerator? Why can't people act confidently on their perceptions? Why are we more like that mythical frog that supposedly will never jump out of a pot of water heating on the stove till it's too late? By the way, I've read that despite the legend that frogs are too dumb to jump out of a heated pot, they most assuredly do jump out at the first sign of warming.

Why aren't people like frogs? Of course, people do have certain pet things they like to chirp about. For almost any given topic there's somebody ready to chirp that their particular piece of sky they've been watching is about to fall.

My friend Shiloh says that he collects acquaintances that serve as his "miner's canary" on any given topic. Not that they die to warn him -- as the real miner's canaries did when there was too much gas in the mine -- but that they will start chirping a warning on their particular topic of interest. For example, one question might be if we really need to worry that there will be a vast pandemic that will kill us all. Shiloh will know an epidemiologist who can give a confident evaluation on that topic.

Unfortunately, along with the chickens Little, there are other human birds with their heads in the sand about any given topic. They are topic-specific skeptics: creationists, Holocaust deniers, gay marriage opponents.

I wonder if real birds have sunrise deniers? Are there some birds who chirp several minutes before and after sunrise just to throw the rest off?

Posted Jun 21, 2009 at 05:05 UTC, 639 words,  [/danPermalink

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