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What’s That Bird Saying? – for Jul. 29, 2010

“Tee-tie-toe-tiddleum!”

The western meadowlark calls to me through summer – or at least that’s what he calls tome!That’s what I grew up learning was the translation for the melodious call of this beautiful yellow-throated songbird. But in recent years I’ve been surprised to discover that other people were taught different versions of the western meadowlark’s song.

“I-was-a-here-a-year-ago,” is one version that seems fairly widespread, but friends have suggested other versions to me: “Gosh-darn-my-feet-are-cold,” sounds like the song of a meadowlark who arrived before all the snow was melted. “My-post-is-comfortable,” is a more contented bird, perhaps, and, “I-left-my-pretty- sister-at-home,” sounds like a slightly self-satisfied bird.

Recently I read in Trevor Herriot’s prizewinning book,Grass, Sky, Songa version that he had heard in Low German, which actually translates as, “You-are-such- a-lazy-boy.” When I told that phrase in English to a friend she gave me the German form and, yes indeed, it sounded like a meadowlark song. I wonder what words the bird spoke to the original First Nations people. According to Herriot, the traditional Dakota name for the western meadowlark translates as “bird of promise.” What a fine name for one of our early harbingers of spring. Perhaps that’s why six western U. S. states have chosen it as their state bird.

Of course, the meadowlark is not the only bird for which we have invented words to paraphrase their songs. Another one is the white-throated sparrow for which Canadians use the phrase, “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada- Canada.” When I checked out websites showing bird song mnemonics, a site from the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan gave the “Canada” version plus another one: “ol-Sam-Peabody- Peabody-Peabody.” Another American site gave a similar call: “O-san-pibbity-pibbity-pibbity” and didn’t mention the “Canada” version.

In some cases we might wonder at the mnemonic version. For instance, the black and white warbler is said to repeat “pizza-pizza- pizza” seven times, while the Baltimore oriole supposedly says, “Here-here-come-right-here- dear,” or perhaps, “Peter- Peter-Peter.”

Some of our birds are named for the song they sing most often – the killdeer, for example; the whippoorwill; the phoebe (“fee-be, fee-be”); and the black-capped chickadee (“chick-a-deedee- dee”).

But of all these birds the western meadowlark’s song is, to me, the most melodious. The next time you listen to one singing merrily away, see what phrase it says to you!

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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