The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bird Songs, Another Measure of Spring
by Ro Wauer

Each spring, when our resident birds begin courtship and the neotropical migrants pass through our area, bird songs again become magic. But it also is a time that taxes my memory, trying to recall what bird song belongs to what species. Although songs of the full time residents, such as cardinals, chickadees and blue jays, are set in stone, those of the birds that pass through only in spring often are difficult to remember. I think that I remember better years ago before I got interested in butterflies and that new information managed to eliminate the other. Maybe it’s something else.

Long ago when I first paid much attention to bird songs, I began to memorize their songs using mnemonics. For instance, the mnemonic used to describe a common song or call of a bobwhite is “bob-white.” Blue jays sing “jay, jay, jay.” American robins sing “cheerily-cheery-cheerily-cheery,” but they also are known in song, when the “red, red robin come bob bob bobbin along.” Carolina chickadees sing a whistled “fee-be, fee-bu.” Tufted titmice whistle “peter, peter, peter.” The Carolina wren has a song we all recognize as “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.” Our white-eyed vireo sings “quick-with-the-beer-check.” And what about the cardinal’s song? It sings “what, cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer, chee, cheer, whot, whot, whot,” or “birdy, birdy, birdy.”

The use of mnemonics is most useful when walking through the woods that echo with the songs of a dozen or more neotropical songbirds. Many of these songbirds stay up high and rarely come low enough to see well. So it can be important to know that a red-eyed vireo sings “look up…see me?... over here… higher.” Eastern wood-pewees sing a plaintive whistled “pee-ah-wee, pee-err.” And blue-gray gnatcatchers sing a lispy “spee, spee, spee.”

The vast majority of Texas birds possess a song, although fewer than half of the almost 9,500 known bird species world-wide actually sing. And many species possess a repertoire of songs, often singing different songs in order, one after the other. This behavior can be confusing. Our mockingbird, for instance, has as many as 150 songs, while a brown thrasher, only found here as a migrant or uncommon winter visitor, can sing more than 3,000 song types. A European starling’s repertoire may include only 67 song types. And many wrens, especially the tropical wrens, often sing duets, so that one individual begins the song and its mate ends the song. It is commonplace for many birds, such as our Carolina wren, to sing a song that is repeated by another Carolina wren some distance away. Each is proclaiming its territory. Songs also serve to attract a mate or to convey a message, such as the presence of a predator.

How many songs do birds sing in a single day? That varies with the species. Ornithologists Margaret Nice recorded 2,305 songs in a single May day from a song sparrow. She reported a black-throated green warbler that sang 1,680 songs in seven hours, and she estimated that on a typical day of sixteen hours, he would have sung more than 3,000 songs. But the North American winner is the red-eyed vireo. Ornithologist Harold Mayfield recorded a Michigan red-eyed vireo which sang 22,197 songs in a day.

But whatever the message or how many songs can be sung in a day, to most of us who enjoy birds, it is the song’s acoustical quality that we most enjoy. For many of us, it would be an empty world without the songs of birds.

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