Local residents are invited to enjoy hundreds of concerts this spring, presented by singers performing all over town. Some have been practicing here for weeks; others have just arrived after vacationing in the South, and as far away as Central and South America. And while their songs vary in melody and volume, the intensity and passion are universal.
The first singers were practicing one sunny morning in mid-February just beyond my bird feeder. While two female Cardinals were rolling sunflower seeds around in their beaks, a male Cardinal, after a winter of quiet peeps and cheeps amounting largely to “Where’s the food,” or “Look out for the hawk,” began emitting a few longer chirps in preparation for the full-throated song that would soon be needed to establish his territory. Unimpressed, the females continued eating.
Later that week, a White-Throated Sparrow whistled several high thin notes. After weeks of practice, the song lengthened and grew more lyrical, with its sweet melodic cadence: “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody.” (I did not make that up; you’ll find it in bird books everywhere, along with its northern counterpart: “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada.”) Less lyrical, but still endearing, is the song of the Phoebe. To call him a “singer” is a bit of a stretch, with his nasal, “pheebee,” but I always welcome that buzzy sound when the pair of phoebes returns to build their nest under the porch roof, entertaining us with a miraculous procession of eggs—hatchlings—fledglings.
Dressed in their tiny tuxedos, Chickadees launch their plaintive two-note whistle, “Deeee-doo. Deeee-doo.” (The “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” refrain is reserved for communicating other messages, such as: “Let’s go someplace else.”) Sometimes, a bush seems to emit a litany of different bird songs, but the plagiarizer usually gives himself away by inserting a quiet “meow.” This saucy gray Catbird, tail aloft, belts out one song after another in perfect imitation of a Cardinal, Blue Jay and even the local Oriole, whose song is unique and complex. Yet, the rapper with the most songs, flashing its wings and tail in great exuberance, is the Mocking Bird. An observer of one Mocking Bird in Georgia counted over four-hundred different songs or sounds.
In a surprising move, new-comers to the Gardiner area are up-staging other birds. They’ve been arriving here from the South over the past few decades, probably due to climate change. These pugnacious little birds belt out the loudest, most penetrating songs, and they practice year-round. The first time I heard the loud and incessant refrain of a Carolina Wren—from my bed (before sunrise!)—I wanted to throw my pillow out the window at it. Not many people have seen or even know about this handsomely-dressed, sparrow-sized bird sporting bright shades of brown, white eye-liner and an up-turned tail. It enjoys living in dense undergrowth and around gardens, but beware: if it nests close to your house, you may lose sleep.
To hear my favorite singers I head to the nearby woods around sunset. Near the edge, the Wood Thrush sits atop a tree stump, letting loose its flute-like “ee-o-lay, ee-o-lay.” Deeper into the woods, the Hermit Thrush sings its gorgeous song, also clear and flutelike. But if I’m very lucky, I’ll sometimes hear the most enchanting singer of all, the Veery. Peterson’s field guide describes the song as “liquid, breezy, ethereal, wheeling downward.” It’s a song that can work magic. Late one afternoon I lingered so long in the woods listening to a Veery that I became disoriented and lost my way. It was as though its song had penetrated my mind and rendered me ethereal ….
Don’t let yourself get lost in the woods—but don’t miss these concerts. The singers are at their peak, the seats are best before the full curtain of leaves hides the performers—and the admission price is affordable to all.
Editor’s Note: There are a number of web sites where it is possible to listen to audio clips of bird songs. One is www.birdjam.com/learn.php.