The August Almanac


Do birds have accents?

Most songbirds do. Ornithologists, like linguists, speak of “dialects,” and in fact songbirds acquire dialects in much the same way people do—by listening to the sounds made by others of their kind and by practicing until they can accurately reproduce what they’ve heard. Hence regional distinctions, expressed as variations in pitch and timing, tend to be perpetuated. The differences can be subtle or striking, and dialects can be intensely localized or can prevail over a broad geographic swath. The melody sung by bobolinks in one field may be slightly different from the one sung mere miles away, while winter wrens west of the Rockies sing the same tune as their eastern brethren, though at a much faster tempo. As for species that appear not to develop dialects, biologists believe that the songs of some of these birds are genetically programmed, not learned.


August 31, the beginning of the football season for NCAA Division One teams. The College Football Association, an advocacy group, recently surveyed present and past NCAA football teams at nine colleges and found that since 1949 the size of the average lineman has grown from 72.6 inches and 195 pounds to 75.3 inches and 253 pounds. The average back has grown from 70.9 inches and 177 pounds to 73.2 inches and 201 pounds. The CFA attributes these increases to more weight training and a better diet; many experts also implicate steroids. Under new NCAA regulations, every August college football teams must submit a team roster to the NCAA, which then randomly chooses a slate of 36 players who at some point during the year will be given 48 hours to show up to be tested for steroids. If any test positive, they suffer a year’s suspension. “With the increased testing,” says Dr. Carl Nlaresh, a sports specialist at the University of Connecticut, “I would not be surprised to see weights come down over the next couple of years.” If the 862 present-day backs and linemen on the nine NCAA teams surveyed were replaced with 862 players of 1949 size, the reduction in total weight would be some 33,780 pounds.


August 5, Congress recesses until September 10. For the House, this is the longest of the year’s five “district work periods.” Many congressmen this year will be trading vacation time for an unusually rigorous schedule of appearances before their constituents. One reason: nervousness about the anti-incumbent sentiment among the nation’s voters. Another: the decennial process of redistricting. Congressmen from districts that are being redrawn face the need to become familiar with new pieces of geography—and the voters who live in them. In the 13 states scheduled to give up one or more seats in the House through reapportionment, more than a score of incumbents will find themselves out of a district, facing election contests against other incumbents if they seek to retain office.


Divers and snorkelers are arriving in Florida in great numbers right now, a prime time for visiting the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. Sadly, there is less and less to see. Coralreef scientists are worried by a sharp increase throughout the tropics in coral bleaching, which occurs when the coral animals lose the symbiotic unicellular algae that live within their otherwise transparent bodies and give them color (as well as oxygen and food). The bleached coral polyps are not necessarily dead but are severely weakened. Since bleaching often coincides with abnormally high water temperatures, many researchers fear that coral reefs worldwide may be threatened if global warming becomes a reality. Others are more inclined to blame the bleaching on other environmental stresses—pollution, sedimentation, even careless tourists.


Mattress sales are at their peak this month, owing in part to the beginning of the new school year. College students moving into apartments and parents of primaryand secondary-school students who have moved their families during the summertime to avoid uprooting them in the middle of the academic year make up the lion’s share of individual newmattress purchasers; bulk orders also come in August from colleges and boarding schools. Because about 75 percent of all used bedding is passed along to another person, the average mattress in use in the United States tends to be past its prime—more than 11 years old. Although sales of conventional mattresses declined slightly in 1990, futons—a cheap and adaptable form of Japanese bedding that caught on here 15 years ago—are selling briskly, especially in big cities and college towns: one more sign of a national accommodation to less money and less space.


August 9, New Moon. 12-13, after moonset, watch for the Perseid meteor shower, one of the year’s most brilliant and reliable. Pieces of a comet last seen during the Civil War, the Perseids generally produce 40 to 50 bright shooting stars an hour. 25, Full Moon, also known this month as the Corn or Crain Moon. The Algonquin Indians called this the Sturgeon Moon. The Cheyenne called it the Moon When the Cherries Are Ripe.