Archive for the ‘Bird Song’ Category

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds

December 30, 2007

If you are a Lister, you know that you can count a bird you haven’t actually seen, so long as you can confidently identify it by its song or its call. We’ll have more to say about this in the new year but here, for your New Year’s Eve, is a primer. We tried to hyper-link to the Cornell site for sounds but it kept taking us to the search page. If you want to hear any of these calls, go to the page here and type the species’ name then listen for as long as you have time.

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds


Wouldst thou know the lark?
Then Hark!
Each natural bird
Must be seen and heard.
The lark’s “Tee-ee” is a tinkling entreaty,
But it’s not always “Tee-ee” —
Sometimes it’s “Tee-titi.”
So watch yourself.

Birds have their love-and-mating song,
Their warning cry, their hating song;
A lilt, a tilt, a come-what-may song;
Birds have their careless bough and teeter song
And, of course, their Roger Tory Peter song.


The studious ovenbird (pale pinkish legs)
Calls, “Teacher, teacher, teacher!”
The chestnut-sided warbler begs
To see Miss Beecher.
“I wish to see Miss Beecher.”
(Sometimes interpreted as “Please, please please ta meetcha.)


The redwing (frequents swamps and marshes)
Gurgles, “Konk-la-reeee,”
Eliciting from the wood duck
The exclamation “Jeeee!”
But that’s the male wood duck, remember.
If its his wife you seek,
Wait till you hear a distressed “Who-eek!”


Nothing is simpler than telling a barn owl rom a veery:
One says, “Kschh!” in a voice that is eerie,
The other says, “Vee-ur,” in a manner that is breezy.
(I told you it was easy.)
On the other hand, distinguishing between the veery
And the olive-backed thrush
Is another matter. It couldn’t be worse.
The Thrush’s song is similar to the veery’s,
Only it’s in reverse.


Let us suppose you hear a bird say, “Fitz-bew,”
The things you can be sure of are two:
First, the bird is an alder flycatcher (Empidonax traillii traillii)
Second, you are standing in Ohio — or, as some people call it,
O-hee-O —
Because, although it may come as a surprise to you,
The alder flycatcher, in New York or New England,
does not say, “Fitz-bew,”
It says, “Wee-be-o.”


“Chu-chu-chu” is the note of the harrier,
Copied, of course, from our common carrier.

The osprey, thanks to a lucky fluke,
Avoids “Chu-chu” and cries, “Chewk, chewk!”
So there’s no difficulty there.


The chickadee likes to pronounce his name;
It’s extremely helpful and adds to his fame.
But in spring you can get the heebie-jeebies
Untangling chickadees from phoebes.
The chickadee, when he’s all afire,
Whistles, “Fee-bee,” to express desire.
He should be arrested and thrown into jail
For impersonating another male.
(There’s a way you can tell which bird is which,

But just the same, it’s a nasty switch.)
Our gay deceiver may fancy-free be
But he never does fool a female phoebe.

Oh, sweet the random sounds of birds!
The old-squaw, practicing his thirds;
The distant bittern, driving stakes,
The lonely loon on haunted lakes;
The white-throat’s pure and tenuous thread —
They go to my heart, they go to my head.
How hard it is to find the words
With which to sing the praise of birds!
Yet birds, when they get singing praises,
Don’t lack for words — they know some daisies:
“Onk-a-lik, ow-owdle-ow,”
“Cheedle cheedle chew,”
And dozens of other inspired phrases.

By E. B. White

Happy New Year from the Fat Finch!


December 27, 2007

Christmas in our house is a time for books. This year brought many and it will be many months before all are read and digested. Several are for the birds.

We’ve already read the first of those and it is a fine little book. Sightings. By Sam Keen. With lovely, not-to-be-missed illustrations by Mary Woodin. It is a little book about a large subject. Mr. Keen measures his life by numinous encounters with birds. Not “numerous”; “Numinous.”


Born into a family of Calvinists which, “shaped my psyche to be always anxious and striving, an easy grace descended on me whenever I escaped the embrace of my loving family.” His escapes were to eastern woods near his home and his first sacred sighting was on May 29, 1942. It was an Indigo Bunting. That sighting was followed by a Cardinal and a school teacher who also was a mentor and a birder. Since then Turkey vultures, Wild Turkeys, Mourning doves, and many other birds have opened for Mr. Keen vistas beyond birds. Birders, he asserts, are like other mystics, “. . .blessed with a special kind of vision of the world — the capacity to see eternity in a grain of sand or the presence of the sacred in the precision flying of a flock of blackbirds.” Birders are, “unusually susceptible to the emotion of awe.”

The book is a search for wisdom. Mr. Keen notes, “According to tradition the owl — the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom — spreads its wings only with the arrival of dusk. Wisdom is the paradoxical art of seeing in the dark.”

His descriptions are precise. Here he is on the Wood Thrush. “You can identify the species by its eloquent dress. Think of a well-turned out English gentleman of the old school. The bird’s crown is tawny, passing into cinnamon brown on its back and shoulders, giving way to an olive-gray tail. It wears a contrasting polka-dot vest the color of clotted cream sprinkled liberally with blueberries.”


The best known member of the Thrush family is probably the American Robin but there are several more including all three Bluebird species found in North America. The Wood Thrush is a resident of the United States east of the Mississippi. At the end of the Wood Thrush’s chapter he writes, “Over the years, the Thrush’s shaman song has gradually transformed me into an enchanted agnostic. Unknowing. Amazed.” You can listen here (If you are taken to the main search page, type in “wood thrush.”)

Mr. Keen appears; however, not to be agnostic at all. Instead he seems religious. He efers frequently to the sacred, the numinous and, in an annoying affectation, to “G —” when he means God. Unless he is using the language carelessly, which seems unlikely given that he has been a professor of philosophy and religion, birds are for him a means to the sacred. An agnostic might accept “wondrous” or “awe” but not “sacred” nor “numinous.”

But this is quibbling. Mr. Keen did not write a book engaging in the great debate between Spinoza and Leibniz; he wrote a book about the wonder of birds, and he succeeded. It is a wondrous little book about wondrous birds and the joy they can bring to those attuned to them. We recommend it heartily. We’ll reread ourselves before our next birding trip.

Henry Thoreau on Wintertime Birds

December 23, 2007


Henry David Thoreau, among many other things, was a precise and lyrical birder. Here is he on two wintertime birds in Massachusetts:

For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only. canada-alan-d-wilson.jpgOne night in the beginning of winter, before the pond froze over, about nine o’clock, I was startled by the loud honking of a goose, and, stepping to the door, heard the sound of their wings like a tempest in the woods as they flew low over my house. They passed over the pond toward Fair Haven, seemingly deterred from settling by my light, their commodore honking all the while with a regular beat. Suddenly an unmistakable cat-owl from very near me, with the most harsh and tremendous voice I ever heard from any inhabitant of the woods, responded at regular intervals to the goose, as if determined to expose and disgrace this intruder from Hudson’s Bay by exhibiting a greater compass and volume of voice in a native, and boo-hoo him out of Concord horizon. What do you mean by alarming the citadel at this time of night consecrated to me? Do you think I am ever caught napping at such an hour, and that I have not got lungs and a larynx as well as yourself? Boo-hoo, boo-hoo, boo-hoo! It was one of the most thrilling discords I ever heard. And yet, if you had a discriminating ear, there were in it the elements of a concord such as these plains never saw nor heard.
(Walden, Chapter XV – Winter Animals)


The goose photo is by Alan D. Wilson.

Bird Calls, Bird Songs and Animals for Free

December 20, 2007

There is good news this week from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell operates the incomparable Birds of North America website but one has to pay for it. We do but not everyone would use it enough to justify the cost. (Although, if you still need a Christmas present for someone it is a fine gift AND you can sign up online and not worry about whether it will arrive in time for Christmas. A one-year subscription is $40.00.)

But the good news is that the Cornell Macauley Library of sounds and videos of birds and other animals is now online and free. It is on the blog roll but here is the full cite again:

The search function seems to work well although we had trouble viewing the sonograms because the Raven Viewer would not load on our computer. No matter. We don’t understand the sonograms anyway. We just listen to the bird song or bird call and try to remember it.

One word of warning. Each search for a bird species will result in many recordings, sometimes hundreds. On the right hand side of the search results page you’ll see little icons. If it is a video, you’ll see a video camera icon. However, you may have to scroll through more than one page to find a video. It is easier — although still awkward — to go to the “advanced search,” type in the species name and then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the video button. That way you will get only videos. (Which also have sound)

Not sure if that was a Great Horned Owl you heard last night? Here is an easy way to find out. But the site is not limited to birds. You can listen to about anything you want. Never heard an elk bugle? Here is your chance. Want to get a reaction out of your dog? Play a gray wolf howl. Not sure what a pack of coyotes really sounds like? Here is your chance to learn.

Winter Storm Coming

December 7, 2007

The weather bureau tells us that a winter storm is on the way.  But the birds in the backyard need no computer come to tell them the weather is changing.  They can see the heavy leaden skies, feel the moisture in the air and note, directly in their being, the falling air pressure as the storm approaches.  The House Finches, House Sparrows, Goldfinches are all busy this morning.  The backyard is a riot of bird calls, bird flight, and birds eating.  It is not as calm out there as it was yesterday morning. It is a little frantic.  Something is up; they know it, and they feed against the morrow.   winter-feeder-activity.jpg

We wonder if the non-migrant birds, like people, don’t get just a little crazy this time of year.  The clouds,  the cold weather, the long nights; all add up to “Winters of Discontent.”  It would, for instance, be interesting to go back through history, isolating when national leaders made decisions to start wars and see if the majority of such decisions were not made in the four months astride the Winter Solstice.  Science tells us — beyond doubt — that humans are more depressed and more susceptible to really serious depressions in winter.  In mythology those four months are always the time of waiting, of despair.

We should demand a moratorium on all important decisions of state during this time. Send our leaders south for the winter if they must be busy but, better yet, send them home and not allow them to make a single decision. The decline in sunlight contributes to a decline in sanity for most people.  Better to feed against the darkness and the cold and the snow and wait for better days and softer climes to make big decisions.  We could learn from our avian friends who mainly sleep and eat during winter.  Not for them, the life changing decisions; not for them the long trips through the night.  Their wisdom is to hunker down and wait for better days.

Which is our subtle way of reminding everyone in the Northern Hemisphere to be sure there is plenty of high quality seed on hand and in your feeders, that suet cakes are out and that your avian guests have plenty of water.  It’s cold out there.

Teshekpuk Lake, the Arctic and Loons

October 21, 2007

From the radio program “Living on Earth” comes this brief interview with Gerrit Vyn and recordings of loons.kanredthrustedloon.jpg

But even more interesting is Mr. Vyn’s travel blog of his travels this year to northern Alaska. Even if you don’t have time to read any of his entries, simply scan down the page and feast your eyes on the gorgeous photographs. And the not so gorgeous — the oil companies are at work up there.

We’ve added his travel blog to the blogroll even though the last entry was in July. There is a sound gallery, a video gallery and a photo gallery that are wonderful. If you suspect that you may never get to the Arctic, make yourself a cup of tea, log on to his blog and spend at least a half hour in Alaska. You’ll be warm and there will no mosquitoes to bother you which is an advantage over the real thing.

Fictional Birds, Part I

September 15, 2007

This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the Tailorbird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting.

That is from Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful short story Riki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose who saved his human family from Nag and Nagaina, the cobras. But it really wasn’t Darzee who helped, it was his wife. When the time came that Nagaina had to be distracted while Rikki-tikki-tavi scurried off to the melon bed to break the cobra’s eggs, it was Darzee’s wife who knew what had to be done and did it.

Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head. And just because he knew that Nagaina’s children were born in eggs like his own, he didn’t think at first that it was fair to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways. She fluttered in front of Nagaina by the rubbish heap and cried out, “Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it.” Then she fluttered more desperately than ever. Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, “You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you’ve chosen a bad place to be lame in.” And she moved toward Darzee’s wife, slipping along over the dust. “The boy broke it with a stone!” shrieked Darzee’s wife. . . .[Nagaina replied,] What is the use of running away? I am sure to catch you. Little fool, look at me!” Darzee’s wife knew better than to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake’s eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee’s wife fluttered on, piping sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina quickened her pace.

Scientists have a technical name for that kind of avian behavior, they call it “Distraction Displays” and many ground dwelling birds are quite adept at it. Kipling was taking fictional liberties with that distraction display. Such displays are almost always the behavior of ground dwelling bird parents trying to keep a predator away from their nest. orthotomus_sutorius.jpgTailorbirds, so named because they pierce the edges of a large leaf and then sew it together using plant fiber or spider’s web to make a pouch which they fill with grass to make their nest, nest in trees. They live in South Asia and are warblers with short rounded wings, short tails, strong legs and long curved bills. They hold their tails upright, like wrens. Kipling knew his birds; his story takes place in an urban garden and tailorbirds live in open woodland, scrub and gardens.

He may have known his birds but he was writing in the Victorian Era and Darzee’s wife never gets her own name. But, like I said, it was she that knew what had to be done and did it. When Nagaina is about to kill the little boy who rescued Rikki-tikki at the beginning of the story, Rikki-tikki arrives with the last of the cobra’s eggs in his mouth. Nagaina forgets killing the boy in order to get her last egg.  She eventually does and flees for her hole with the egg in her mouth. Darzee just keeps on singing:

But Darzee’s wife was wiser. She flew off her nest as Nagaina came along, and flapped her wings about Nagaina’s head. If Darzee had helped they might have turned her, but Nagaina only lowered her hood and went on.

And so, because Darzee is an idiot, Rikki-tikki has to follow Nagaina into her hole and little mongooses are frequently killed by snakes in snake holes where there is no room for the mongoose to manuever. But Rikki-tikki emerges the winner. Then we are introduced to the second bird species of the story, the Coppersmith Barbet.

Tell the Coppersmith, Darzee, and he will tell the garden that Nagaina is dead.” The Coppersmith is a bird who makes a noise exactly like the beating of a little hammer on a copper pot; and the reason he is always making it is because he is the town crier to every Indian garden, and tells all the news to everybody who cares to listen. As Rikki-tikki went up the path, he heard his “attention” notes like a tiny dinner gong, and then the steady “Ding-dong-tock! Nag is dead–dong! Nagaina is dead! Ding-dong-tock!” That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.

The Coppersmith Barbet is also a resident of South Asia. megalaima_haemacephala.jpg It is the most common barbet and lives entirely in trees, preferring open wooded country and urban gardens. Its call is a loud metallic sounding “tuk…tuk…tuk,” which is how it got its name. It makes the call by closing its beak then inflating and collapsing its throat like a rubber bulb. It does this monotonously for hours, accompanying the call with much shaking of its body and tail. It is one of India’s most frequent bird sounds, during the warm season. It is largely quiet in colder weather. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi takes place during the warm Monsoon season.

Like I said, Kipling knew his birds.

Bird Song

September 13, 2007

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because
it has a song.

Chinese Proverb

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