Here we are, on our last day of a lovely weekend in lovely Muscatine, Iowa, and I’ve heard something I’d long forgotten about.
But first a little digression. Muscatine is known as the Pearl Button Capital of the World. It sits beside the Mighty Mississippi (though not so mighty as the Mississippi I knew as a pup farther down the river in St. Louis), as it happens at a bend that was favorable to the thriving of freshwater mussels.
In the late 19th Century, and well into the 20th Century, the good people of Muscatine harvested mussels from the river and used the shells to create pearl buttons by the millions. These were exported all over the world and provided a livelihood (though never a fortune) for generations of Muscatiners. There is a museum in this delightful river town devoted to this unlikely bit of history, and to this day, people find button blanks and drilled shells throughout the town when they turn their gardens and such. Libby found a blank when we first arrived three days ago just resting on the ground beneath a tree.
The button industry changed, primarily by the advent of cheaper and more durable plastic buttons. Our modern age has not been favorable to the mussels either. Shifting uses of the river (dredging, channeling, building of levees), pollution, and most notably, the invasion of zebra mussels have made native mussels much less common. Many varieties are now extinct.
Still, Muscatine continues to thrive. It is home to many large industries, it is capitalizing on its pearl button past with the tourist trade, and it is revitalizing its riverfront in ways that Kansas City can’t even begin to dream of. (Why is that?)
And now I’ll end my digression (though it may not seem like it at first).
When Libby and I and our brood first moved to Kansas City from St. Louis, one of the first things in the natural world I noticed was that the birds were stupid. It was the cardinals, specifically. They didn’t know how to sing properly. The male cardinals did not sing their familiar song in the same way as I had heard it for so many years in St. Louis. They all sang it in the same Kansas City way, but it wasn’t the right way.
Now, as you may know, in my callow youth, St. Louis was home to two major sports teams known as the Cardinals. Ergo, if any cardinals knew the correct way to sing, it was the ones in St. Louis.
After a little time to reflect, I hit upon the idea that perhaps birds can sing in dialects just as humans can speak in dialects. I can imagine someone in Alabama may speak the same words in a different way from someone in Vermont, who would be different from someone in Florida, who would be different from someone in Washington, who would be different from someone in Australia. They would all be variations — dialects — from the correct way to speak (which is, of course, the way people from Missouri speak), but with a little effort I could understand them.
And so it is, I thought, with birds. Perhaps little cardinals in their own callow youth learned to sing in the way they heard around them, and regional variation was possible. Thus a new song pattern was reinforced through generations. It didn’t seem impossible. And while most birds sing, the cardinals of my youth had the most recognizable song pattern, so it was the one I could use for comparison.
And it turns out, there are people who actually do study bird dialects. I’ll leave the science to them and just piggyback on their legitimacy to validate my humble observations.
Which brings me back to Muscatine, Iowa. In the pre-dawn, as I sat in the dining room of the delightful bed and breakfast where we are staying, I heard the morning bird symphony begin, and among the songs was one I recognized from my long-ago St. Louis days. It was a cardinal singing in the way I’d first heard it so many years ago. It was a true St. Louis cardinal.
This makes sense. Muscatine is along the mighty Mississippi River. St. Louis is along the mighty Mississippi River. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that cardinals might more likely travel up and down the river than across the state to Kansas City. So if a given cardinal dialect were to be propagated across a region, Muscatine and St. Louis might share that song.
As for Roundrock . . . well, the cardinals there didn’t seem to get the proper upbringing. They sing in the Kansas City dialect, and while that is pleasing enuf, it think it justifies a few more trips to bed and breakfast inns to listen for birdsong.