The Nature Writers of Texas

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bird Song is Already Heard on Sunny Days
by Ro Wauer

In spite of our recent cold snap, several of our resident birds have begun their springtime singing. Walking about the neighborhood, one of the loudest and more vigorous songster is the northern cardinal or redbird. Males perch up high, like a king of all they survey, and loudly proclaim their territory. Cardinal songs have been described as a loud, clear, throaty whistle. Although both the males and females sing, it is the male that is loudest and most strident. Female cardinal songs are softer and less frequent. Cardinal songs possess a variation of notes, like "wheer wheer wheer whoit whoit whoit whoit," the first three notes descending in pitch, the whoit notes rising sharply and delivered more rapidly; "hew hew hew hew hew," each note descending.

Carolina wren songs are similar to those of cardinals, a clear, loud, ringing song. It usually is three-syllables and usually is repeated three to five times. It is often described as "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea" or "wheedle, wheedle, wheedle, wheedle." Carolina wrens also are early spring songsters, and they have a habit of dueting, when a male may start a song that is finished by a female. And oftentimes, a nearby male, hearing the first songster, will answer.

Another of our resident songbird that already is singing about the neighborhood is the tufted titmouse. The titmouse song is less musical than that of the cardinal, but is equally loud and constant. It can easily be described as a series of "peter" notes. At times in spring, titmice will call over and over again for an extended period of time. Like cardinals, male titmice seem to prefer a high perch, although they rarely sit at the very tip top.

The smallest of our resident songster is the Carolina chickadee. I have heard it, too, of late, but not as frequent as the cardinal and titmouse. Chickadee songs are a clear "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" or "dee-dee-dee." Sometimes their song can be run together so it is almost an extended scratchy call. And like the previous two species, chickadee males often sing from on high, although they spend most of their time hidden among the foliage.

The most varied songs come from northern mockingbirds, another of our common resident birds. Mockingbird songs can sound like almost any other birdsong or even like some constant noise in the neighborhood. But their typical song is a rich, varied, musical medley interspersed with imitations and harsh notes. It usually repeats each note three to six times or more before shifting to another imitation or phrase.

Even some of our wintering birds have begun to react by singing bits of their songs that may not be fully expressed until they return to their ancestral nesting grounds later in spring or early summer. But it is not unusual to hear even those birds, such as ruby-crowned kinglets, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, and chipping and white-throated sparrows, lend their voices to the early spring chorus.

Birdsong is a truly fascinating behavior that is practiced by all birds. It is especially commonplace in spring, when males begin to claim breeding territories. Although some birds defend a territory year-round, most of our yard birds only become active in spring. Their territorial defense, primarily that of singing but also chasing other birds away, lasts throughout the nesting season but diminishes significantly once the young are fledged.

Ornithologists have studied singing birds for decades, recording their songs and also examining their internal organs. All agree that the stimulus for breeding, including territoriality, courtship, and nesting, is the increasing hours of daylight. Since our day lengths already are increasing, birds are reacting by singing during sunny and warming days. Birdsong is a marvelous indicator that warmer days will bring springtime flowers, butterflies, and general contentment.

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