Listening to Spring

Photo by Alan Vernon
Western Meadowlark            Photo by Alan Vernon

(I wrote this short article about bird song for our local website Fruita Pulp.  Check out the local talent (poetry!) and information (mountain biking!) at http://www.fruitapulp.com/)

The temperature has finally clawed its way back above freezing (during the day at least), the sun is showing itself again, and in honor of Valentine’s Day the Eurasian Collared doves are putting the moves on each other.  If you squint into the distance, you can see spring meandering our way.  Finally.

In my opinion, one of the best things about spring is the way it sounds when you wake up in the morning.  Sound is seasonal- it is an important cue to time and place. When I first wake up, before my eyes even open, I start listening.  My brain is groggily trying to figure out where I am in time and space.  In my case, the first thing I usually hear is cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” but in between summons, I become aware of the background noise.  Cars starting, a passing train, but there are sounds that change with the seasons.  On a snowy winter day, all noise seems muffled by the insulation of the snow.  But if you hear exuberant birdsong, you know it’s spring.

For me spring always brings a burst of energy and ambition.  I want to take on new challenges.  Last year this involved putting in a garden and then starting more seeds than I would ever have room to plant.  This year I challenged myself to show restraint when placing my seed order.  If you are looking for a new challenge this spring, why not learn some bird songs?  Learning birdsongs will certainly help you become a better birder, because you can often hear more birds than you can actually see.  But even if you don’t plan to take up birding as a hobby, there is something about being able to give a name to things that allows you to notice.  I think we could all stand to do a little more noticing of the world around us in this age of distraction and hurry.

Learning birdsongs may appear to be an arduous task, especially to non-musical folks like me- but it doesn’t have to be a chore.  I used to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ornithology course.  This course involved a LOT of memorization and the students were often overwhelmed, so I only asked them to learn 10 of the songs most commonly heard on campus.  Ten songs are not a lot, but it can really open a door into the world of natural sounds. You may find yourself noticing sounds and creatures that have been around you, unseen, all along.    If you can identify these common songs, when you hear something that is not in your “top 10” you know it may be something unusual and worth tracking down for a better look. At the very least you can impress your friends, or embarrass them, depending on how cool a crowd you run with.

Here are Fruita’s “top 10” in no particular order.  (The birders who are reading this will surely quibble with my list, but trust me it was REALLY hard to cut down to only 10.) If you click each name, you will be taken to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website where you can listen to each species’ songs and other sounds and see pictures of them.  There will be a quiz on Monday (just kidding.)

  1. Eurasian Collared Dove– these large, pale doves breed pretty early here in the Grand Valley and have already started calling to mates- a classic “koo-KOO-kook.  They also make a really ugly “hwaah” call when alarmed that sounds like a cow in pain to me.
  2. House Sparrow– a commonplace but cheery “cheep, cheep, cheerup”
  3. House Finch– a jumbled warble usually with a slurred “zree” note somewhere near the end.
  4. Starling– an accomplished mimic, the Starling can impersonate other birds like Red-tailed Hawks.  Their song is complex and almost mechanical sounding.
  5. American Robin– the happy classic “cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!”
  6. Northern Flicker– our most common woodpecker.  Listen for it’s loud “Keeeer!”  call
  7. Western Meadowlark – A beautiful, flute-like melody often heard in pastures and fields.  One of the best sounds of spring.
  8. Mourning Dove –  a softer “coo-oo”, than the Eurasian Collared-Dove, often mistaken for an owl.  (For a great musical tribute to this dove, check out the song “Mornin’ Dove” by Robinella and the CC String Band.)
  9. Common Raven – one of the most intelligent birds, they make a wide variety of sounds including a  loud“Croak!” which can be heard for more than a mile.
  10. Bullock’s Oriole – listen for these near large cottonwoods where they like to build their sock-like nests.  The Oriole’s song is a whistled melody that sounds a bit like the Robin, but has a richer tone and is less repetitive.

The Eurasian Collared Doves have already started calling to mates, but the rest of the gang won’t really get going until April- so you have about 6 weeks to study.  If you learn these, you may then be able to pick out a Lazuli Bunting along the river or a wash.  These small birds are a spectacular blue, orange and white and worth tracking down for a look.  Another bird you’re likely to hear nearby water is the bold Red-winged Blackbird.  Take a hike in McInnis Canyons and you may hear one of my favorites, a Canyon Wren, echoing from the canyon walls or a Black-throated Sparrow singing from atop a four-winged saltbush.  Close your eyes, smell the mud and the fresh leaves, feel the sun warming your face. Be still for a moment and open your ears.  You may be surprised what you can hear.

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Listening to Spring

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