By Jorge Ventocilla
Days ago I was on the phone with my sister Rosa María, who is living in Peru, and video chatting via Skype with Jorge Luis, my son, who is studying in England. It is funny how both of them asked me about the singing birds they could hear in the background. The singing birds were Clay-colored Thrushes, commonly referred to as capisucias (Turdus grayi) in Panama, which can be heard anywhere in the country.
My sister thought they were “lovely sounds”, and I could see the smile on my son’s face through the computer screen. I didn’t know that these sounds could take him back to his childhood days here in Gamboa.
The wonders of technology allow us to keep in touch with people anywhere in the world, with both real audio and video. However, the real wonder is to be able to hear the capisucia or other birds that take us to our most treasured memories.
Just to be on the same page, this Full Moon we included a link to a recording of the song of the capisucia.
According to Francisco Delgado, from Chitre, “The Clay-colored Thrush is the bird with the longest list of native names in Panama”. “It is called capisucia throughout Panama; platanera, cascocha and cascá, in Azuero; chorotega or choroteca, in Chiriqui; and yigüirro in the border with Costa Rica.”
It starts to sing by the end of the dry season, just when people starts to think “…the rainy season is about to begin”. The male does all the singing. It sings not to call for the rain, but for attracting females. Its song is a sign of the beginning of the breeding season of many of the birds in Panama. When the rainy season begins, the population of insects begins to grow and birds have more resources to feed their squabs.
Both male and female are similar. Even though they are good at flying, they like to spend their time on the ground, foraging for food (worms, for example), especially after the rain. Its nest can be found in the trees or under windowsills. The foundation of the nest is made with clay gathered by the female (plastic ropes, thread, etc.). The Clay-colored Thrush lays 2-4 pale blue eggs with dark spots which are brooded for 12 days. Once they hatch, the male helps feed the squabs during the 2-week period they remain in the nest.
Capisucias from the same location tend to breed at the same time. Eugene Morton, from the Smithsonian, has studied the species and told me that birds on the Pacific side start singing two months before birds on the Caribbean side.
We would probably be able to see young capisucias flying around in April. And we would also see them falling to the ground. This is a very dangerous period for them because they are easy prey to their natural predators: the cat, for example. Watch out and keep an eye on your cat, if you have one at home.
Capisucias eat fruit and they will come to our window if we feed them with bananas. Beautiful is not a word that comes to mind when describing the Clay-colored Thrush. It is a rather simple bird, but few other birds can sing as beautifully as it does. If we pay attention, this will be the first bird we will hear singing when we wake up (if we pay attention), within the months of February-March through June. After all these months and all inspiration have passed, this bird will not sing anymore.
My friend Blas Quintero, an Anthropologist who has worked very close to the ngäbe natives, told me: “Ngäbe natives call it ‘Dela’. There is a fable that says that God was tired and sleepy after creating the world. All the singing animals were summoned to sing a song before God and help Him fall asleep. All the birds went there and sang, but God still could not sleep. Then they asked ‘Dela’ to sing for God, but ‘Dela’ was concerned about performing before God because he didn’t have shiny feathers. The other animals convinced ‘Dela’. Then ‘Dela’, standing a little far from God, sang before Him and God fell asleep. When God woke up He asked for ‘Dela’, but ‘Dela’ was already gone…”
Blas also told me that cascá has “a wide range of sounds, just like the nightingales, hummingbirds and other thrushes.”
The “yigüirro”, as it is known in Costa Rica, is the national bird of this country. Our Harpy Eagle is powerful and mighty, but the Clay-colored Thrush is also gracious and its presence is full of symbolism.
We do not longer believe that things happen by pure chance. I mention this because, right after talking with my sister and my son, while I was drafting this article, my brother Tato called me from Peru. He didn’t know about the other conversations, but he told me he was calling because there were some singing wood pigeons, a type of dove that is very common there. He wanted me to hear them singing, since their songs were part of my own childhood memories and he wanted to give me that gift. However, the sound of cars would not let me hear the birds singing, despite his efforts for getting closer to the tree.
This happens everywhere. We are no longer able to hear birds singing or flying around. A friend wanted to share the experience she had when moving to a tall-buildings area in Panama City: "I am very sad about how we get to see less birds around. You can only hear the occasional talingo. Even mockingbirds, which used to be the only birds singing around, have disappeared. I also used to see owls, night herons and American Kestrels while walking my dog…now I cannot see any of these. Every now and then you would see a peregrine falcon flying very fast, but I only can see it from my balcony. Lucky me I am very fond of the turkey vulture!”
Another friend, a birdwatcher, told me about her experience when visiting a relative’s beach home: “…this is yet another place that has driven birds away with all these luxury homes and manicured, poisoned gardens…”
Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher said that “the songs of the birds are abundant in almost every city; however, I am pretty sure it goes unnoticed by city dwellers”. Perhaps it was a good thing that he didn’t get to experience the sounds of cities today.
Nevertheless, we must remember that a good quality of life is, or should be, full of clean pure air, urban parks, proper means of transport, safety and, also, the presence of wild birds and the joy of their free songs, available to everyone.
English translation by: Sara I. Melo D.