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Bird-watchers Give CBS a Bogey on Birdies

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Canyon Wren
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How could the canyon wren, a bird never seen east of Texas, be heard chirping at a tournament in Michigan? (.)

Picture this sequence:

It's a Sunday afternoon and you're at your usual post in front of the TV set, watching the golf tournament on CBS. The telephone rings, and it goes on and on until you reluctantly leave your chair.

It's a telemarketer, of course. Yes, even on Sunday! But this one's different.

"Are you watching the golf on CBS?" he asked. And when I replied in the affirmative, somewhat begrudgingly, he added, "Well, we're ready to pay you $10,000 if you can correctly tell us what's wrong with this telecast. Go back to your set, and we'll call you back in five minutes."

I thought it was a gag. Probably a couple of the boys in the men's grill working a prank, but I went back to the set and analyzed everything. Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi were in good form. The cameras were on top of the action and picking up lovely pastoral scenes along the way. The scoreboards seemed to be up to date, and you could even hear the chirping of the birds in the trees around the green. What could it be?

When the phone rang again, I was totally blank, but I thought I'd take a wild shot at it. "The big guy from South Africa has 15 clubs in his bag and no one has called him on it," I offered, knowing I had blown the big check.

"No, that's not it," he said. "Those birds that you heard singing in the background could not possibly be there. They come from another part of the country. That's the answer."

No, that Sunday afternoon sequence never happened. But it could have. And that answer would have been correct.

In recent weeks, CBS has been receiving calls from gung-ho bird-watchers - bird-listeners, really - who claimed they were perplexed by the singing of birds during the telecasts. One claimed that the sounds made by one were those of a canyon wren, a bird never seen east of Texas, and here he was chirping at a tournament in Michigan. Another pointed out that the whistle of a white-throated sparrow, which is not seen in the South during the summer, could be distinctly heard in the background during the playing of the PGA Championship in Kentucky.

Of course, one wonders why someone who takes the time to tune into a golf event on TV wouldn't be chiefly drawn to the golf action rather than the identity of the barely audible sounds of the birds in the background - the birdie on the course rather than the birdies in the trees. But, apparently, the complainants were bird-watchers first and golfers second. "It was the challenge of the situation," one watcher said in support.

When the calls persisted, CBS opted to clear up the confusion and come clean. A spokesperson for CBS Sports admitted that the birdcalls were dubbed in on some of that network's broadcasts to provide "ambient sound." In defense, she pointed out that the producers always try to attract the sounds of the local birds by placing trays of seeds near the microphones at the course. When the native feathery ones don't respond, the producers reach for the tapes.

The fellows in my circle got a chuckle out of this, but some of the dedicated birders really had ruffled feathers. "It's deceitful," one growled. "Just how perfect do they want us to think it is out there? Why not dub in harp music for certain crucial holes?"

Or a clap of thunder for a disastrous shot into the pond!

For me, the bottom line is that CBS understands the long-time bond between golfers and the birds and their cheerful song. And even at risk of a little harmless hocus-pocus it goes out of its way to add a dash of nature's unique music to its presentations. I like that, even if they do have the canyon wren where he's never been before!

I became enchanted with the singing of the birds on my very first visit to Augusta National. That was the start of my 35 consecutive visits to the Masters, and I have always given the Augusta birds the award as the best songsters on the long golf trail. I arrived at the course late in the afternoon, and it was a sight to behold. The flowers were in full bloom, and I decided to walk the course by myself to see what was out there. It was a walk I will never forget. From my very first step, the birds were in full song, and they seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs. I remember a mockingbird that tried to steal the show from the others with his magnificent repertoire, which he delivered from the top of a tall pine. And I had to wonder, some years later, if he might be the same bird that visited me one day in my back garden.

Mockingbirds were strangers in my Connecticut area at the time. The annual bird count indicated there were only six of them sighted in quite an extensive area. Most of them had elected to stay in their original southern environment. But I had one of them, and he perched on the top rail of the fence and sang his melodies for me while I cultivated the tomato plants and peppers. When he would occasionally pause, I would whistle a short assortment of notes to amuse him. Of course, I was hoping he might imitate them, since he tried to mock just about every sound he heard, including barking dogs, the squeak of a wheel on a rusty wheelbarrow, as well as the calls of other birds.

The surprise of surprises came some weeks later when he was sitting on the TV antenna in concert. In the midst of this ensemble, I detected the whistled tune I had made up for him. I paused and listened again, and he repeated it several times. It was like hearing one of the kids utter "Daddy" for the first time!

I became a birder of sorts myself thanks to the mocker, who, by the way, occupied my garden fence for over two years. And I was really pleased when a segment of my club decided to join a growing program to "Save the Bluebird." They bought bird boxes and posted them in wooded areas around the fringe of the course.

Bluebirds were once plentiful in my area, but they were becoming scarce when their natural enemies began to gain the upper hand. The club project had the bird boxes on poles wrapped with some type of foil to keep the predators at bay. And it worked. Before long there were at least a dozen families singing their sweet songs around the course. And they've been filling more boxes and keeping us smiling ever since.

I have often thought that the famous Walter Hagen line about taking time to stop and smell the flowers, might easily be altered to read: "Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to take time to listen to the birds."

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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