Loud Birds, Checkerboard Lawn


I was on a walk the other day and it suddenly occurred to me that birds are very loud. I mean, considering how small they are. How can something so small make so much noise? We’ve had mockingbirds singing outside our house at midnight and the noise is deafening. What’s going on?

— Bird Brained, San Diego

Yeah, don’t you just want to sling your clock at those birds? Whadda racket. Too bad when a male mocker picks your nabe as his territory and marks it sonically. And a mocker is what — eight, nine inches long? Little gray thing. Smaller than one of those stupid purse dogs but twice as loud. Even louder than the neighbors when they have those big Saturday-night fights. So, how do they do it? Not the way we do, or even the way doggies do it.

We make noise by forcing air from our lungs through two fixed vocal folds high in our throats. The vibration makes the sound; the air quantity and pressure makes the volume. (Dogs, sort of the same.) But birds need to communicate over distances and through foliage. Most of them need to be loud from time to time. Songbirds have what’s called a syrinx deep in their chests. This structure contains cartilage with supporting membranes and muscles that vibrate and make sound waves. The syrinx is also very close to a bird’s lungs, close to the air source, and can act like a resonating chamber. The amount of air pressure coming from the lungs helps determine volume and pitch. So do all the muscles and bones. Add to that the fact that each side of the syrinx can operate independently and you have a pretty complex sound-making machine.

But the biggest trick birds use to guarantee they’ll be heard is to choose the time and place of the vocalization carefully. The loudest singing we usually hear from songbirds comes during spring, and it comes from males claiming territory and attracting females. To make sure he gets lucky, a male songbird frequently chooses to sing from the highest perch he can find. A treetop, a telephone pole. No leaves or grasses or other things to absorb sound. If a bird is stuck in a green environment, it will not only sing out loud but adapt its song to its surroundings. So, maybe you can figure why Mr. Mockingbird chooses 3 a.m. atop a tree in your yard to make his announcement. It sounds extra loud because there are no competing sounds. I’m sure that doesn’t make you feel any better. Just hope he catches a mate fast so he’ll shut up fairly soon.

Hey Matt:

I was thinking of giving my front lawn that “ball park” look. You know, the checkerboard crisscross patterns we see at the major league baseball parks. How can I get that effect in my grass without having to hire professional landscapers?

— Jeff, via e-mail

Hey, once we’re through here, plant some hay seeds and you can make your own front-lawn crop circles if checkerboards get too boring. The official name of this game is lawn striping, and it’s a game of light. To play the game, you need any kind of mower with a roller behind the cutting blades. The roller bends the blades over — the key to a top-notch baseball front lawn.

Mow one wide stripe working, say, north to south multiple times, then mow the next wide stripe from south to north. Repeat until you’ve run out of lawn. The cross bands, natch, go east to west, then west to east. You gotcha a checkerboard. So, now you’re standing on your driveway viewing your handiwork and hoping one of the neighbors comes by. The grass bending away from you appears lighter green (larger reflective surface). With grass bending toward you, you’ll just see a bit of light reflected from the grass tips and then the shadow under the blade, so it’s a darker green. Where they cross over one another, it’s in the middle. Unfortunately, the usual Southern California grass, like Bermuda, is very stiff and hard to bend. Keeping the grass between two and three inches long and shooting a strong stream of water in the direction of the bend might help.

Obviously, all this takes a lot of planning and charting and figuring out how to mow a checkerboard around a tree or those garden gnomes. Luckily, there’s a book for all you amateur lawn stripers with a dream. It’s written by a top pro, David Mellor, head groundskeeper for the Red Sox: Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes, and Sports. Riding and push mowers with built-in rollers made for lawn striping are for sale in garden shops.

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If you do get your lawn looking like a baseball field, just don't put any back-stops or bleachers in. A guy in Poway just did that in his own backyard, on acres and acres of land he owned. The city might be fining him, as he didn't get a permit to have that done.

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