Listen to the Birds

Listen to the Birds

A Carolina wren relentlessly sings its singsong song in the bushes near our house. I haven’t seen one since the trees leafed out, but I hear them every day.

Catbirds are back, mewing and mimicking the patois of other songbirds. They sound like they’ve had one too many.

Red-shouldered hawks screech across our hayfield most mornings, staking their claim to our property. They make a high-pitched kee-aah that can wake sound sleepers. Blue jays do a poor imitation of this battle cry —perhaps to sound scarier, or maybe just to show off their range.

I hardly ever see an ovenbird in the spring, but I hear their frenetic “teacher-teacher-teacher” call whenever I walk in the woods hereabouts.

Birds, especially the pretty ones, are hard to spy now amidst the riotous green canopy, so it’s time to transition from bird watching to bird listening —a preferable pastime in many ways. You can do it while washing the dishes, horizontal in a hammock, or hydrating on the veranda in your Adirondack chair. You don’t have to veer off the hiking path and into the tall grass with the ticks. It’s way easier on the neck, too.

In my dotage, rising 72, I have come to appreciate simply listening to the birds. I already know what most of the usual suspects look like, your house finches, chickadees, juncos, and that lot. Thankfully, avian vocal chords (actually they have a syrinx) emit an endless variety of rapturous noises: trills, warbles, and melodic runs. Some very plain species make the sweetest music.

And just as seeing a bird, even at point blank range, doesn’t ensure that an average birder, like me, can identify it, bird listening presents its own challenges. Many species sound maddingly alike. No one would mistake a cardinal for an indigo bunting on sight —or either for a chipping sparrow— but all three produce a similar curt exclamation, their shared alarm call.

The confusion can be annoying at first, until you relax and just listen. Besides, you could get lucky and actually see the bird that is alarmed, or whatever is causing the alarm, perchance a snake or another bird —or you.

Some species convene an ad hoc chorus to express communal distress. You haven’t lived until you’ve been scolded by a jury of tufted titmice. Mockingbirds and crows will “mob” predators, screeching at a hawk or an owl to let it know that it’s been detected and is not welcome thereabouts. My only sighting of a saw whet owl came when I followed a cacophony of angry blue jays.

Luckily some species are more aurally distinctive than others. Common ravens look like crows but croak like bullfrogs. Those tiny saw whet owls (they’re smaller than blue jays) perfectly mimic the sound of a propane truck backing up: beep-beep-beep, ad infinitum.

But of all the avian melodies none are as eerie, or as evocative of untamed places, as the nighttime lament of the eastern whip-poor-will. It commands the dark stage with its manic and melancholy refrain. Hank Williams hit the right note: “It sounds too blue to fly.”

Sometimes it is singing still as dawn breaks. The poor bird is longing for a mate, of course, but that may not be its only motivation. There are precious few whip-poor-wills left. I heard one once, just once, decades ago, in our as yet quite rural Connecticut town, where the species used to be endemic. Clearly what we casually deem to be wilderness today isn’t what it used to be, thanks to our relentless expansion.

In 1962 Rachel Carson warned that our species was propagating a “Silent Spring” by spreading our pesticides and weed killers and by our general invasive behavior. Thanks in large part to her clarion call, and the environmental movement she helped to launch, spring is not as silent as it might be. Some species, red-shouldered hawks for one, are faring better today than they have in a long time. I can hear them as I am typing.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: all is not well in the Great Outdoors, where so many of us found solace this pandemic year.

Spring is not nearly noisy enough. In aggregate numbers there are roughly three billion fewer birds today in the United States and Canada than there were 50 years ago, according to a study conducted by scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere.

Three billion. Poof. Nearly one in every three birds —including some quite familiar and noisy ones like blue jays— have disappeared from North America since 1970. More will be departing soon. Talk about a pandemic.

It is time for us to listen to the birds, for their sake and ours. Or your grandchildren may only be able to hear a whip-poor-will on YouTube.