Birds fill the air with songs of all sorts
All year round, even in the relatively quiet months of winter, birds are singing in the Northeast. The cries of crows and ravens, the burbling calls of chickadees and tufted titmice, house finches and goldfinches, enrich the cold months.
But then comes Spring — and the world fills with musical trills and songs of all sorts! For those with ears to hear, this singing is a chance to deepen our understanding of birds and their lives.
In my Southern rural childhood, birds regaled me with “chip-whipoorwill”, “bob white!” and the sweet sad ‘cooo’ of the mourning dove. One day, after moving to Pennsylvania, I heard Terri Gross of the Fresh Air radio show interview Dr. Donald Kroodsma, author of The Singing Life of Birds. When I finally read his book, my world exploded. I felt as though I had been deaf to a world where there was a symphony playing.
To learn birdsong, I relied on two CDs, the Peterson guide and a more unusual one called “Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody” (this is a word mash of the songs of the barred owl and the white-throated sparrow), which relies on mnemonics as a teaching tool. In the Spring, our skies are full of warblers migrating from Central and South America to their breeding grounds in the north, and I despaired of ever distinguishing all those lovely songs! But little by little it came.
We may think birds sing for joy or to entertain us, but the reality is much different. They sing, of course, to attract mates, but also to establish territory, give warning of an approaching predator, and teach young to sing the dialect that will allow them to fit into their community. They probably aren’t thinking of us, but hopefully they do sometimes sing for joy!
Fun facts about bird songs:
• Songbirds have two voiceboxes or syringes (singular syrinx), which allow them essentially to sing two different songs at the same time.
• Many songbirds learn their basic songs from their fathers, but can learn new dialects if they leave the home territory. If they are separated from their parents as hatchlings, they will learn whatever song they hear consistently, even that of another species.
• Another subset of birds does NOT learn their songs. They are born programmed with the song for their species and never venture out to improvise on what nature has given them.
• Several species of birds mimic the songs of other birds. In the northeast, mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers are noted mimics. Even starlings and even blue jays have this superpower. A blue jay can imitate the call of a hawk, either as a warning or to clear out the competition at the bird feeders!
• Besides mimicking, the Brown Thrasher leads the birding world in sheer numbers of songs. In 1981, Ripley’s Believe It or Not noted its amazing diversity. This beautiful chestnut bird, with a seemingly endless stream of two-note phrases, has been clocked at 2,400 different songs!
• In several species of birds, it is not just the male who sings. Female cardinals match the male’s repertoire of songs, and even sing duets with their mates. Other species that sing in duet are the Carolina wren, the wood thrush, and the barred owl.
• Many of the birds around us wake up the day from Spring until the end of nesting season with the famous “Dawn Chorus.” The songs they sing at dawn may vary from ones sung later in the day. That can be a challenge for birders!
These fun facts just scratch the surface of the wonder that is bird song. Tuning in to what other creatures are saying (or singing) can open our senses and minds to a whole new world.
Kay Cramer is President of Seven Mountains Audubon in Lewisburg. In her second decade of birding, she has been greatly alarmed by the steep decline in birds across most species over the past 50 years. She is currently engaged in Audubon’s effort to create backyard habitat to help birds and pollinators through planting native trees, shrubs and flowers. She lives and farms in southern Snyder County.