On the Wing



First to break the morning stillness is the drumming and wik-wik-wik of a flicker, muffled somewhat by a thick clump of alder and cedars. A band-tailed pigeon at the top of the tall birch, its regular spot for years now, joins in, softly cooing its two-note song.

Somewhere up in the honey locust a Pacific slope flycatcher comes in next with its high-pitched but nearly inaudible suh-weet-tsik. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I hear the fast, whirring wingbeats of an Anna’s hummingbird. First it checks me out, circling me, stopping and tsk-ing every couple of seconds, then dives into the bright red crocosmias.

In the distance a robin tries to break into his cheerily-cheerup song but suddenly switches to a whinny in alarm, perhaps after sighting a marauding cat. Nothing says danger like a robin’s panicked whinny.

The soundscape continues to fill up. Straight ahead, up in the firs, a crow checks in, a harsh rising-falling caw repeated three times. I can almost picture it, its head bobbing with every caw. And I can hear a red-breasted sapsucker pecking at the bark of the tall birch, looking for a breakfast of insects. The birch and the walnut in the yard are its favorite trees; the holes it makes can damage the thin-barked birch, but the tree has been around for at least 30 years and it’s still going strong. Or so I tell myself.

All of that in the first 10 minutes after walking outside early on an overcast July morning, coffee in hand, for my daily dose of early hour magic. Morning people really have all the fun.

It was nothing like the legendary dawn chorus in the spring, of course—that time when male songbirds belt out their best to claim and defend their territory and attract mates, or as animal behavior expert Tim Birkhead describes it in “Bird Sense,” to send out a long-distance signal that says “keep out” to other males and “come in” to females. On the other hand, it was a perfect time for paying attention to the many other sounds birds make.

Songs are at the top of the list of the rich repertoire of bird vocalizations. Heard generally only during breeding, they vary in complexity and are normally repeated, usually in the same form. The song of the band-tailed pigeon, for example, is a gentle cooing phrase that starts out with an introductory note and is followed by several nearly identical two-note segments, a high note and a slightly longer lower note. The band-taileds around my house sing those two-note segments no more than five times each, then pause for about 10 to 15 seconds before they start the whole phrase over again.

The diminutive and active wrens occupy the other extreme. Bewick’s wrens, year-round residents in our area, have several songs, all of which at first sound like a random jumble of harsh buzzes and flute-like trills and whistles. If you listen carefully, however, you will notice that the buzzes, trills and whistles are arranged in the same sequence in each phrase. The phrases are sung loudly at a fast tempo and are repeated endlessly with very short breaks in between. That behavior can help distinguish Bewick’s wrens from song sparrows, whose song can sound similar.

Woodpeckers use drumming the same way songbirds use songs, to claim and defend territory and to attract mates. Just like songs, drumming phrases are repeated. Each woodpecker’s drumming is different; they vary in speed, loudness and overall pattern. The northern flicker’s drumming is more rapid and is often interspersed with a series of loud wik-wik-wik notes. That of the pileated woodpecker is a little slower and can echo in the woods. The drumming of the red-breasted sapsucker is hard to miss: it starts at a fast tempo and then slows down to a stop. All three species are common in our area.

Unlike songs, calls can be heard any time. They are shorter sounds birds make in specific situations, for example to alert other birds or to threaten and scold a predator, to stay in contact in flight or while they’re foraging or socializing. But we don’t always know what calls are used for. You’ve probably heard the harsh, loud calls of crows as they gather each evening before flying to their roosting sites, and you may have picked up the softer, gentler sounds they make at other times in smaller groups. What exactly the sounds mean we don’t know with any certainty.

So next time you get a chance go outside early in the morning, be quiet and listen. Birds have a lot to say, and they say most of it when the day is still young. 

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.