The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Birds and Brooms
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

Bird Song Birds and Brooms: It is 3 a.m. Do you know where your wife is? I know where mine was one morning. She was outside the bedroom window wielding a broom to stop a Northern Mockingbird from keeping us awake. Even that poet of the mockingbird, Walt Whitman, would have used more than a rhyme scheme to end the serenade.

Another relative of this bird rudely stirred me before dawn every day for a week. I must admit I was impressed. Instead of counting sheep, I counted the variations in his repertoire, which amounted to 40 different songs, including imitations of chachalacas, grackles and kiskadees. The rest was pure improvisation, I think, unless he had taken a vacation in the jungles of Sumatra.

That is not the best, however; it is said that some mockers can do about 400 noises, including chainsaws and dogs barking. Even better, the Brown Thrasher may deliver over 1000 different tunes. Not at my window, I hope.

Our favorite may be the Winter Wren, smallest of its family at about 4 inches and the most musical, in our opinion. They nest in our northern woods in the root systems of overturned cedars. From there or a stump their tunes bubble, cascade, trill and run the scale. When they pause, they might bounce up and down and squeak like a mouse. These are the first birds we hear when we return in May.

Ernie and the Owl: A former colleague arrived on his motorcycle to spend a couple of days. That evening we sat around the campfire and reminisced. Suddenly, a Great Horned Owl boomed three deep hoots from just beyond the firelight. Ernie the Biker Man jerked up his head and cried out, "Why do they do that?" I guess the answer was to scare prey. At the time it seemed an odd question.

The Barred Owls in our woods speak the usual, "Who cooks for you?" noted in all the field guides, and it really sounds like that. They also play Hallowe'en and send maniacal eerie laughter into the nights. It has something to do with mating season.

Ave Maria: Another beloved song is the sad, clear whistle of the Greater Pewee, an unromantic name for a flycatcher of the West. (One spent time last year at Anzalduas County Park to the delight of birders). We first heard its song one bright morning in a Southeastern Arizona canyon. One would swear that it is saying "Ave Maria" in an imitation of the hymn.

Birds and Words: If you are a birder, you probably know Roger Tory Peterson's method of including in his field guides phrases that help identify the songs of birds. (Theodore Roosevelt had a similar method.) For example, the White-throated Sparrow says, "O Canada, Canada," except in New England where they think it calls, "O Sam Peabody." The Eastern Towhee commands, "Drink your Tea." In the Valley, folks maintain that the chachalacas rap out, "Wake him up, Wake him up." And you know they do.

This is an effective way to learn the songs, but we had a neighbor who took this technique beyond reason. One day she brought me a written description of the song of a bird she heard in her backyard. It went like this: "In the woods. In the woods. Here I am. Here I am. Listen here. I am a good singer. Don't you think? You can't see me. Ha. Ha." This was a songster of some complexity. Whew! Roger Tory, come back.

The Henslow's Hit: Finally, the best one of all is perhaps the little Henslow's Sparrow, a grassland species with streaks, an olive complexion and a bill like a little Roman nose. He prepares for his aria by perching in a tall grass. He throws back his head and burst forth with, "Hiccup!" That's it. But the girls love it.

Poets like Shelley, Keats and Whitman have written great poems about the beauty of bird songs. The delight of hearing the spring chorus and the musical quality of avian vocalization and its amazing variety have led naturalists to study them in depth. The world would be poorer without them....most of the time.


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