Birds of Spring

March 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

–Song of Solomon, 2:12

While the running of the maple sap is one of the early signs of spring for me, the spring really arrives to my world with the birdsong choir where new voices join in every day. It all really starts in late February, with the snow still on the ground and the ground still frozen hard, when cardinals – the first performers on the scene – start on their thick, rich song. Every year I wait for his yearly premiere with the same eagerness I wait to spot the first robin. And one day it comes – a little unsure at first, a few distant notes cut through the frosty February air, as though the bird is testing its vocal cords which rested since mid-summer. It doesn’t take long, however, before a bright-red beauty is perched almost perpetually on the black cherry in my yard, or at the top of one of the pines on the Northern end, filling the air with his loud, assertive, unmistakable voice.

Now they are special birds, these cardinals. With their range limited to only 5 miles all year round, individual birds remain in the same area their entire life (or so I read), and are extremely reliable guests at bird feeders. Few things brighten a piercingly-cold,  grayish-white winter day like the scarlet flash of his breast. As long as you keep your feeders full, they will come back continuously, summer and winter. I love cardinals. They are pretty much my favorite birds.

The cardinal’s song proves contagious to other winter residents, such as their smaller cousins house finches, who, invisible all winter, suddenly descend on my feeders in great hordes as the the days warm up. Their song is a typical finch sound, although, unlike with his close relatives buntings and goldfinches, who sound similar but higher and clearer, the house finch’s song has more of a rusty element to it and tends to be very repetitive. Still, a house finch, with his flashy red breast, is a welcome visitor in my backyard.

The chickadees and titmice, with their clear “peter-peter-peter,” too join in. It’s amazing how, come spring, chickadees start making all sorts of sounds your never hear them make during the rest of the year. Even the dark-eyed juncos, for whom cold and snowy Wisconsin represents their southern wintering range, begin to sound like a hundred silver bells ringing in unison.

About the same time, goldfinches, who spend their winters clad in drab-olive, start showing signs of bright yellow as they begin their molt. By May, the males will have turned bright, almost luminescent yellow. They reserve most of their singing, however, for August, when they nest (since, unlike other birds, they don’t feed their chicks insects but raise them exclusively on a diet of regurgitated seed, making them dependend on thistle and other seed and thistle down for nesting material) – later than all the other birds. Come August, their calls will be everywhere – they actually become a bit much for me, because two years ago, at the height of their nesting season, I found myself in the middle of the first trimester of pregnancy (read: the worst imaginable vomiting marathon). So strong is this association, that their contact call (though not their song) is forever tied to nausea in my brain, and makes me feel almost sick when I hear it – sort of like permanently avoiding a food item that was once responsible for a horrific food poisoning.

The first robin of 2008, my first bird-watching spring.

It is around that time that I become impatient to spot a plump, brown-orange breast of a returning robin in the grass. Now the robin is a remarkable bird. Infinitely adaptable, they co-exist amazingly well with people in any setting, and can be seen both in the city and in the country, which is not the case with their more delicate cousins bluebirds, who depend on a particular kind of habitat and nesting sites. I begin to wait for them at the first signs of melting snow (since they follow the receding snowline when migrating). For a while it seems like they would never come. And then, one day, suddenly they are everywhere – hopping in the short, still-brown mid-March grass that is just beginning to turn green, pulling fat worms out of the lawn. And the song – the robin’s song is so very beautiful, commonplace that it is. And, if you pay close attention, you realize that each individual robin has his own individual singing style, so that the robin nesting in my orchard, for instance, is immediately distinguishable from a robin in my neighbor’s yard. You just have to open your ears and listen. To me, the arrival of the robin is a sure sign that the seasons have turned.

Robins are almost immediately joined by their close cousins bluebirds. Bluebirds are most notable for their brilliant blue color, and are a real delight to look at. (Did you know, by the way, that blue color in birds is not the result of a pigment, as is the case with red and yellow birds, but is all in the structure of their feathers and how they reflect light? So if you were to grind up a cardinal’s feather, you would get red powder, but if you were to grind a bluebird’s feather, the powder would be black.) Their song is not particularly special, but it is useful for their identification.

Bluebirds are picky nesters, though. They prefer to hunt for insects from an elevated point, such as a fence post or a low tree branch, spotting their prey in the grass, and they prefer the grass to be short. Unlike robins, who will build their cup-shaped nest in a tree or just about anywhere, bluebirds depend on natural cavities, abandoned wood-pecker holes, and man-made birdhouses for nesting, while their feeding habits limit them to places like golf courses, orchards, pastures, and other areas where grass is abundant and is kept short through mowing or grazing. Now it just so happens that my farm includes over an acre of vineyard, complete with tall posts that hold up the trellises with grapevines, while the rest of the farm is pasture, surrounded, in most places, by a barb-wire fence. My farm, therefore, is an ideal bluebird habitat. When I first got into birds, Jacob built me 5 nest boxes (=houses), and we mounted them in several suitable places throughout the farm. After that, bluebirds became our regular summer residents.

Bluebirds are always accompanied by less melodious, but nevertheless pleasantly familiar wailing cries of a killdeer (my 4-year girl old literally thinks that they are telling you to “kill the deer”), and the raspy calls of the red-wing blackbird.

The next singer on the scene is usually the song sparrow – a handsome, brown-streaked native sparrow with his own distinctive sound. Although each song sparrow sounds different from the next, the general pattern of their song is always the same, so the bird is easily identifiable. Widespread, they can be heard everywhere throughout the countryside.

Just around that time, the loud honking of Canada geese can be heard as they pass overhead – the sound so basic and so familiar that it evokes in me some sort of primal yearning, as though I was a native of this land and not an exotic import from a drastically different time and place.

The second wave of migration, around mid-April, brings a number of birds that are mostly passing through, but if I am lucky enough to have them pass through my farm, I really enjoy their brief, but melodious presence. The ones who stand out the most include white-throated sparrows who I absolutely adore for their distinct “oh-sweet-sweet-canada-canada-canada” and white-crowned sparrows. Another bird that appears at the same time and stays all summer is the chipping sparrow, sounding almost like an insect with his incessant, dry thrill.

About that time it is getting to be May, and a whole another set of distinguished performers joins the chorus. One of my favorite birds to expect during that time is the humble house wren – a common brown bird recognized by its diminutive size, its upturned tail, its ethereally beautiful, fluid song, and a sassy scalding call it gives upon you approaching its nest. It is one of my absolute favorites. Usually a couple of them nest in different places on my farm. Cavity nesters, they can be a bit of a competition for bluebirds. There’s a wren house right outside my front door, on my porch, and I love watching their territorial antics and listening to them all day every day.

Another much-anticipated May visitor is the Baltimore oriole – a handsome, black-and-orange bird, a relative of a blackbird, which becomes a regular visitor to your feeder during the first half of May, where it will partake exclusively of oranges, grape jelly (elderberry works too), and sugar water – a quick energy fix it needs before the insects become plentiful. After that, they depart from yards, but can still be spotted, and, especially, heard, in the woods. They too are amazing songsters.

Of course I also enjoy everyone’s favorite ruby-throated hummingbird – the only hummingbird that regularly spends its summers here, and is easily attracted with a sugar-water feeder (sugar water can be made at home by combining 1/4 C part sugar and 1 C water, heating the mixture until the sugar has dissolved, and letting it cool before filling the feeder).

But the most special sound of all is the haunting, drawn-out song of the meadowlark (not truly a lark, but, belonging, along with the orioles, to the blackbird family), perched high on a pine tree near the property line, always in the same place. They have become somewhat rare, so hearing one is always something very, very special.

All in all, to me, listening to the sounds of the natural world – be it coyotes howling in the night in response to a distant police siren, the birds, the sound of the rushing trout streams, the careful steps of the deer in November, or the wind sweeping through the trees – presents an infinite source of entertainment. So often, to a modern man (or child, for that matter), the natural world is blocked out by television, iPod ear-buds, and cellphones, yet I will take listening to what the nature has to tell me over any noisy gadget any day.

I also believe that bird and birdsong identification is a wonderful thing to teach your children – it’s just one of the ways to be attuned to and aware of the natural world around you. (This ability to listen and pay attention is also a skill that is both honed by and is necessary for hunting – another important way to be in touch with nature, and something I am teaching my children how to love). How’s that for ADD prevention.

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