Sunday, May 18, 2008

Let's Have a Little Bird Music

From the Winnipeg Free Press. Excerpts here. Click here to read it all.

BALMORAL -- It's the male birds that sing and it's mating that turns them into little Pavarottis.

But it was a threat to habitat that transformed birds here into recording artists.

Aluminum maker Alcan wanted to build a smelter near Balmoral, 30 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and one of the comments people kept making was "at least there's nothing up there."

"I thought, 'There's lots up here,' " said Catherine Thexton, who lived on a farm in the area with her late husband George. To prove it, Thexton would venture into the bush on their Interlake farm and record bird sounds.

The Alcan plan was scrapped but a recording industry was launched. Thexton's first vinyl record, In Praise of Spring (1981), sold more than 1,000 copies, followed by Meadowlark Music (1983), also on vinyl, which sold more than 7,000 copies.


Another of Thexton's recordings, Dusk to Dawn, sounds as if it's about all-nighters at a drive-in theatre. It came about after many nights when Thexton would lie in bed with the screen window open and wonder what bird and animal sounds she heard.

For example, she wondered if the "pahh" sound was an owl or a fox. (Naturalist writer Ernest Thompson Seton encountered the same dilemma. In his case, he determined it was an owl only after he killed the owl and found the noise stopped.) Dusk to Dawn includes the red fox and various species of toads, frogs and night owls.

With her parabolic microphone, shaped like a satellite dish, Thexton looks more like someone trying to intercept extraterrestrial signals. The apparatus amplifies sound 75 times for her recordings, but she has to pinpoint a bird's location. Even then, birds don't speak on cue.


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