Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Springtime is full of music, and humans aren’t the only ones expressing their love in song. In the bird world it’s vital to the process of finding, wooing, and winning a mate. Bird sounds are only a little less vital to those of us binocular-wearers who eagerly listen to learn which species are about.
Birders soon learn that singing not only denotes a feathery presence, but it can reveal the type of bird doing the singing. We’ve heard a far greater number of owls than we’ve seen, for example. Upon hearing “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” in an appropriate part of the country, we know it’s a barred owl. Change that call to “Who, who, who …” and we know a great horned owl is around.
Male birds do the singing, first to attract the attention of a female, and second to advertise a territory. And while many birds cease singing after breeding season, some species keep it up all year.
Birders love the convenience of identifying birds whose song puts their name to music. The eastern phoebe sings “Phoe-bee”; the eastern wood pewee belts out “Peee-a-weee.” Bird identification doesn’t get much easier than that.
Want more? Try the black-billed cuckoo, whose “Cucucu” doesn’t sound all that different from that of a cuckoo clock. Several species of jays can be seen in the United States, and their calls all sound more or less like the “Jay, jay, jay” of the blue jay. And they make their noise year-round.
The bobwhite quail’s “Bob-white, bob-white” is truly musical. Bobwhites are beautiful birds, almost as beautiful as their songs.
A few more tell-all examples: “Chickadee-dee-dee-dee” comes from the beak of the Carolina chickadee; “Kill-dee, kill-dee” from a killdeer; and “Flicka, flicka” from a flicker. These songs are so distinctive and so appealing that even in the morning when you’re not quite awake, you know instantly who’s providing the wake-up call.
Let’s consider a few birds whose names were chosen to describe the bird’s call or song. For example, the gray catbird meows. It doesn’t sound nearly as demanding as our cat when it’s hungry, but it’s definitely a meow.
When we began birding, we were intrigued to see the laughing gull on a bird list. All it took was a stroll on the beach to discover how it received its name. When you see a gull flying nearby and it fills your ears with something like “Ha-ha-ha-hahaha-hahaha,” you’ll know.
Yes, mourning doves do sound sad, and screech owls screech, but just what exactly do they sound like? Aside from hearing them live, to learn the songs and sounds of birds you can listen to them on tapes, CDs, or a computer with speakers connected to the Internet. We were amazed to find more than 3 million listings pop up when we used a search engine to find “bird sounds” on the Internet. Narrowing the entry down to “bird sound mnemonics” brought the results down to only 3,520. Just accessing a few of the sites (complete with sound samples) brought back good memories.
We find having bird sounds on cassette tape more convenient than a CD, because we have a tiny tape player/recorder we carry along when we’re birding. Comparing what we hear to the voice on the recording often gives us a positive identification in the field, and is more convenient than having to check the sound when we get back home. As an added plus, we can record the birds’ names on a separate tape as we see them, rather than having to find a pencil and write them down on the bird list.
Back to the music. Robins are so commonly seen and loved that few people would need a tape recording to identify them. The two-syllable “Cheerup” or three-syllable “Cheerily” is as familiar as the “Caw” of a crow. There are, however, a couple of birds whose songs resemble that of the robin. The scarlet tanager sounds like a robin with a hoarse voice. One source stated that the rose-breasted grosbeak’s song is also robin-like, but we have too little experience with that species to verify it.
An identification tip that covers a good many birds compares a call or song to a common word or series of words to make a good reminder. Knowing that the Acadian flycatcher (an Eastern bird) sounds off with something like “Pizza” helps to identify the bird. The “Teakettle, teakettle” repeated by the Carolina wren is distinctive, as is the “Witchity, witchity” of the common yellowthroat.
While reading an old list of bird mnemonics we’ve had for years, we had to chuckle at this one: “Fire! Fire! Where? Here! Put-it-out! Put-it-out!” is supposed to be an approximation of the song of the indigo bunting, a bird we haven’t seen for a long time. The cardinal’s “What cheer, what cheer” can be heard from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, which is why it’s familiar to so many people. Of course, the male cardinal’s flashy red attire makes it hard to miss when it isn’t calling.
On the other hand, when we have heard the curt “Che-bek, che-bek” of the least flycatcher, we’ve rarely been able to see the bird. That’s when we appreciated knowing bird songs. Listen carefully, turn the sound into syllables or words, check the bird list and the mnemonics list “” and make your identification.
Sometimes you’ll hear bird sounds that are similar in rhythm but with such different vocal quality that the identification is easy. The melodious “Drink your tea…” of the Eastern towhee couldn’t be confused with the raucous “Conk-a-ree” of the red-winged blackbird near a marsh. Same rhythm, but entirely different voice tone.
Just thinking about and remembering bird songs while writing this column reopens memories of hearing “Teacher, teacher” coming out of a bush (from an ovenbird), and “Peter, Peter, Peter” from a tree branch (the call of a tufted titmouse). These birds aren’t exotic, just valued friends.
When we’re out walking, particularly this time of year, we hear our feathered friends everywhere. Whether it’s the “Chi-ca-go” of the California quail, or the “Yank, yank, yank” of the red-breasted nuthatch, it’s just another reminder that spring is really here.