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Bird Songs

Male Hermit Thrushes Returning

During the past week a familiar and ethereal song has been emanating from nearby woodlands.  Male Hermit Thrushes have returned, as have their flute-like songs. These songs are made with a syrinx (not a larynx like humans have), an organ unique to birds. It is not much bigger than a raindrop in most birds and is extremely efficient, using nearly all the air that passes through it. (A human creates sound using only 2% of the air exhaled through the larynx.)

The syrinx is located where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. In songbirds, each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches (one from each half of its syrinx) simultaneously.  Hermit Thrushes can produce rising and falling notes at the same time, creating the melodious and haunting song that greets our ears early in the spring. This renowned songster can be heard at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hermit_Thrush/sounds

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Male Indigo Buntings Singing

indigo bunting1B0A0717As with many species of birds, only male Indigo Buntings sing. Their distinctive paired notes are often broadcast from the top of a tree during the breeding season. This song serves as a “keep out” signal to other male buntings, as well as a means of attracting a female. (To hear the Indigo Bunting’s song, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds.)

While some birds hatch knowing the songs they will sing as adults, most songbirds begin learning their songs while still in the nest. They listen to adults, either their fathers or neighboring males, singing around them. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, about 80% of first-year males in their first spring season copy the song of an older neighboring territorial male. Following fledging, young birds attempt to replicate these songs, practicing until they have matched their tutor’s song.

During the breeding season, Indigo Bunting song rates vary with stage of nesting. The greatest frequency occurs in unmated males (680 songs per hour). During nest-building, the frequency drops to 24 songs per hour, but increases once the female has completed laying eggs.

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The Resumption of Perch Cooing

3-18-19 mourning dove IMG_2091Many of New England’s Mourning Doves migrate down the Atlantic coast to spend the winter in more southerly climes and thus their persistent coo-ing is lacking during the winter months. However, even with feet of snow still on the ground in places, the relative silence has recently been broken by the return of these mournful-sounding birds.

The Mourning Dove’s primary song is referred to as a “perch coo.” Most of us are familiar with this song — a two-syllable coo followed by two or three louder coos. (“Coo-oo, OO, OO, OO”) Unmated males sing this song repeatedly during the breeding season, often from a conspicuous perch. (Mated males also sing, but far less frequently.) The song’s principal function appears to be the attraction of a mate.

You are most apt to hear Mourning Doves perch cooing half an hour before sunrise until roughly an hour and a half after sunrise, when it tapers off. Singing does pick up in the afternoon, but doesn’t begin to reach the fervor of the morning. Perch cooing reaches its peak between mid-May and mid-June.

Thank you to all who wrote in regarding Naturally Curious’s 9th Anniversary. Your kind words, wishes and donations were gratefully received.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Two For One

2-15-19 cardinals _U1A8442Thanks to warmer temperatures and a vast increase in the number of bird feeders, Northern Cardinals have expanded their range northward as far as Canada over the past century. Males get far more attention than females, due to their year-round brilliant red plumage. However, the female Cardinal is equally striking with her more subtle tan plumage highlighted with touches of red. Believe it or not, it is possible, albeit very rare, to find both of these plumages on one bird.

Recently an interesting phenomenon known as a bilateral gynandromorph was recorded in Pennsylvania — a cardinal whose body is half male, half female. (For a detailed explanation and video, go to https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/01/half-male-half-female-cardinal-pennsylvania/?fbclid=IwAR2KbCmxuGxtGmKug2eLPS9JD6Vf_KV93OWgy0UsKuMAO-p_2soISJgM400.) Not just the plumage, but the anatomy of this bird is half male, half female. The way in which this gender division exists has a unique effect. According to National Geographic, “Most gynandromorph individuals are infertile, but this one may actually be fertile as the left side is female, and only the left ovary in birds in functional.”

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Black-capped Chickadees Singing Their Spring Song

2-11-19 chickadee 007Would it surprise you to learn that Black-capped Chickadees have at least 16 different vocalizations? The two most common are its “chick-a-dee” call and its “fee-bee” song. The “chick-a-dee” vocalization for which these birds are named is sung by both sexes throughout the year, but it’s especially common in fall and winter. This call is used to convey a number of different messages. It’s given when a bird is separated from its mate or flock, when chickadees are mobbing a predator (lots of dee notes), to notify others when a predator has left, and when a new food source is discovered.

The two-noted, whistled “fee-bee” vocalization is given mostly by males, although not exclusively. While it can be heard throughout the year, this song is most common in late winter and spring and thus is referred to as the chickadee’s spring song. When chickadees are singing their “fee-bee” song, they are advertising their territories and attempting to attract mates.

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Tufted Titmice Singing & Calling

3-24-17 tufted titmouse 085The two-note “Peter-Peter” song of the Tufted Titmouse has just started to ring out through northern New England woods. Although titmice may pair up any time of year, the singing of the males is still a vital part of establishing territory and courtship. The rate and the volume at which these songs are sung is highest during pre-nesting, nest-building, egg-laying and incubation.

While the Tufted Titmouse’s song is familiar, its calls are more numerous and varied. Twelve different Tufted Titmouse calls have been identified. They range from the ‘chick-a-dee’ and ‘seet’ calls made in reponse to predators, to the hissing done by a female titmouse in a cavity, defending her nest.

To hear both songs and calls of the Tufted Titmouse, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Titmouse/sounds.

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Belted Kingfishers’ Distinctive Traits

8-2-16 belted kingfisher 520You often hear a Belted Kingfisher before you see it. Their territorial, mechanical “rattle” is quite distinctive and issued frequently.  This call is just one of their more distinctive traits.  They are one of the few species of birds where the female’s plumage (two “belts” on breast) is more colorful than the male’s (one breast “belt”). Kingfishers have a distinctive pattern of wingbeats: whereas most birds beat their wings several times and then glide, kingfishers’ wingbeats are irregular and intermittent, lacking the flap and glide pattern.  Kingfishers have the unusual ability to hover in one spot while surveying the water 20 to 40 feet below for fish or other prey.  When they capture a fish, they often return to a branch and whack it multiple times against the branch to assure its compliance in being swallowed head first without a struggle.  Even the nesting site of a Belted Kingfisher is fairly unusual —  a chamber located at the end of a 3 to 6-foot-long bank burrow they dig with their bill and feet.

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The Ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler

5-6-16 yellow-rumped warbler 031The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), formerly referred to as a Myrtle Warbler, is not hard to find during its migration due to the large numbers that pass through (as well as stay to breed in) central and northern New England.  These tiny jewels, also known as “butter-butts” because of their bright yellow rumps, are common and widespread.

Yellow-rumps are known for the diversity of their feeding techniques as well as their diet.  You are as likely to find them clinging to a tree, probing under bark or foliage gleaning for insects as you are finding them taking short bursts of flight off of a branch to snag an insect in the air.  These warblers are insect-eaters during the summer and consume a large amount of fruit during the winter.  Their ability to digest the waxes in bayberries makes them unique among warblers, and allows populations to winter along the coast as far north as Nova Scotia.

The presence of “pantaloons” on this image of a male Yellow-rumped Warbler may be due to courtship behavior.  Males hop from perch to perch, fluff out their feathers, raise their wings, erect their crown-feathers, and continuously chip in an effort to attract a female.

Should you choose to use your ears to locate this coniferous forest-loving warbler, its song can be heard at http://musicofnature.com/mary-holland/yellow-rumped-warbler/ . (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Tufted Titmice Singing

2-26-16  titmouse 199

Peter – Peter – Peter.” “Peter – Peter – Peter.” The song of the tufted titmouse is one of the first bird songs heard in late winter. Unlike its scratchy, nasal call note, the titmouse’s song is a relatively loud, clear, two-note whistle which is repeated rapidly up to 11 times in succession. If you become aware of it, it can even become a bit monotonous. While it is mostly males that do the singing, females sometimes give voice to a softer version of this song.

To hear a tufted titmouse’s song and call notes, go to http://www.langelliott.com/wp-content/mary-holland/tufted_titmouse.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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Great Horned Owls Courting

Great Horned Owls are staking out territories and beginning courtship rituals in northern New England. Their “songs” are typically given with their beak closed, as they lean forward and cock their tail up (see photo). When calling, their white throat feathers are pronounced as their throat swells.

The hooting of a Great Horned Owl can be compared to the sound of a distant foghorn – it is soft, and somewhat subdued, with no strong accent on any one hoot. Pairs often synchronize their deep sonorous territorial songs, a custom which is referred to as “duetting.” The higher-pitched female calls a six or seven-note song and the male responds with a deeper five-note song during or within a few seconds after the female’s song.  The chances of hearing a Great Horned Owl are somewhat greater after midnight than before. To hear Great Horned Owl territorial calls and duetting go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/sounds. (Thanks to Vermont Institute of Natural Science for photo op.)

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1-19-16  great horned owl calling 289


Last of the Canada Warblers Heading South

9-23 Canada warbler IMG_7397The Canada Warbler (or “necklaced warbler” – the male’s “necklace” is very pronounced in spring plumage) is one of the last warblers to arrive on its breeding grounds in the spring, and one of the first to depart. The last of members of this species are now leaving the cool, moist forests of boreal Canada and the Northeast for northern South America – a particularly long migration for a New World, or wood-warbler. Canada Warblers pass through rapidly, over about a three-week period, which is soon coming to an end. During migration, these warblers are known to sing frequently, and often continue singing on their wintering grounds. Populations of Canada Warblers have declined steadily over the past 30 years, likely in response to forest succession and loss of forested wetlands on their breeding grounds. (photo: fall female or 1st year male Canada Warbler — plumage is indistinguishable. Thanks to George Clark for i.d. confirmation.)

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Hermit Thrushes Still Singing

8-7-15  hermit thrush 101The woods have become relatively quiet in the last few weeks. A majority of songbirds have mated and nested, so there is no need to reinforce pair-bonding with song. However, some late nesters, including the Hermit Thrush, are still on eggs and the males are still singing.

The Hermit Thrush makes up for its rather drab appearance with its melodious, haunting, flute-like song. The Hermit Thrush’s song is similar to that of its close relative, the Wood Thrush, but it starts with a single, clear note which the Wood Thrush’s song lacks. The Hermit Thrush doesn’t sing during migration or on its wintering grounds, so we are now privilege to its last lyrical songs of the year. To hear a recording, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/hermit_thrush_by_Ted_Mack_Adirondacks_1994.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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Male Blackburnian Warblers Singing

blackburnian warbler 473Male Blackburnian Warblers are relatively easy to identify by sight. They are the only North American warbler with an orange throat, and their intense orange breeding plumage is unmistakable. However, because they often forage for spiders and insects high in the canopy where they are hidden from sight, Blackburnians are often located by ear. Their singing peaks soon after they arrive on their breeding grounds. To hear the thin, high-pitched song unmated males sing, as well as mated males when they are near the females, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/BLBUWA_5_songs_with_chips_MB.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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Northern Waterthrushes Singing

northern waterthrush 276If it is not singing, the Northern Waterthrush, a large wood warbler and not a thrush, can be recognized by its bobbing body and wagging tail. However, its loud, ringing song is the most diagnostic characteristic of this species, and allows one to distinguish it from its look-alike relative, the Louisiana Waterthrush. The primary song of the Northern Waterthrush has three parts, which are said to sound like a vigorous, rapid “sweet sweet swee wee wee chew chew chew chew.”

The Northern Waterthrush also has a flight song which is given on its breeding ground, typically in the evening. This song usually starts with loud, sharp, chips of increasing frequency, delivered from the ground or a low perch. The bird then flies upward through and above the canopy, singing snatches of primary song but quicker and longer, framed in a hurried jumble of half-call/half-song notes.

To hear the primary song of the Northern Waterthrush, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/northern_waterthrush_1_NY.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Mourning Doves Calling

3-19-15 -mourning dove IMG_2091The mournful lament of the male mourning dove is often one of the first songs heard in the early spring. The frequency of this call builds to a peak from mid-May to mid-June. As in many other pigeons and doves, the Mourning Dove’s main call, or “perch coo” (coo-oo, OO, OO, OO) is an advertising call, sung in order to attract a mate. Unmated males often establish perches within their territory from which they repeatedly sing.

A shorter nest call is used by a paired male to attract his mate to a potential nest site. The male then gathers nesting material and presents it to the female while standing on her back. While she constructs the nest, he continues to use the nest call to maintain a bond with his mate. Once the nest is built, this call diminishes. You can hear Mourning Dove calls at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/mourning_dove/sounds, although to my ear, it’s hard to distinguish the perch call from the nest call in these recordings.

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Warbling Vireo Warbles on Nest

6-4-14 warbling vireo on nest 226 As a rule, male birds do not sing near their nest. When they approach their nest, whether to take their turn incubating eggs, brooding nestlings or delivering food, they are apt to be silent, or sing much more softly than usual, so as to avoid bringing attention to the nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however – male Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Black-billed Cuckoos, Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles and American Goldfinches have been heard singing not just near their nest, but while sitting on it! Warbling Vireos are by far the most persistent nest singers. When the male Warbling Vireo is incubating, he sings at all times of the day, as many as 20 bursts of song during one spell on the nest. Listening for the Warbling Vireo’s song and locating the songster can often lead you to its nest. One wonders what function the song has that makes it worth drawing this kind of attention to the nest.

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Shorebirds Migrating Through New England

5-15-14 greater yellowlegs 286Many of the shorebirds that overwinter in Central and South America, as well as southern North America, migrate through New England during the month of May, on their way north to their Canadian breeding grounds. Although Greater Yellowlegs (pictured) are more solitary than most shorebirds, they tend to migrate in small flocks as they head for the bogs and coniferous forests of northern Canada and southern Alaska. They are recognizable by their upright stance, bright yellow legs and piercing alarm calls (nicknames include “telltale,” “tattler,” and “yelper”). During the early 20th century, before they were protected, Greater Yellowlegs were considered an important game bird, and according to Arthur C. Bent, an ornithologist at the time, this species was often shot “by an angry gunner as a reward for its exasperating loquacity.”

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Brown Creepers Singing

4-11-14 brown creeper2  025Brown Creepers –insect-eating, bark-gleaning, little brown birds — are occasionally spotted as they circle their way upwards around and around a tree trunk, probing under bark with their thin, curved beaks for their next meal. Because they are so well camouflaged it is easy to miss them. Your chances of becoming aware of their presence are increased if you become familiar with the high, thin but surprisingly rich song males sing to establish territories on their breeding grounds this time of year. Although they continue to sing through the nesting period until their young have fledged, male brown creepers are most vocal early in the season, when they are staking out their territory. You can hear their song by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/sounds and clicking on “sound.”

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Male American Bitterns Calling

6-8-13 calling A. bitternAmerican Bitterns typically nest in tall, standing cattails, rushes and sedges, where they are well concealed. Like most birds, male bitterns use their voice to attract a female and to stake out their territory. Dense marshes present a challenge when it comes to being heard, however. American Bitterns overcome this challenge by having a very low-frequency call, which is audible at great distances in dense marsh vegetation. Once you’ve heard a bittern’s call, you’ll never forget it. It is very deep, and has three syllables – “oong-ka-choonk” – which are preceded by clicks and gulps. The bittern makes this call multiple times by inflating his esophagus while contorting himself quite violently. A female American Bittern couldn’t help but be impressed. (You can hear a bittern calling by visiting Cornell’s site, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_bittern/sounds .


Tufted Titmice Singing

titmouse IMG_3625Winter must be on the wane, as a tufted titmouse was recently singing its fast-repeated, clear whistle song, “Peter—Peter—Peter,” in nearby woods. Male titmice repeat this phrase over and over, up to 11 times in succession. Occasionally females sing a softer version of this song. The calls of tufted titmice, on the other hand, are very nasal and mechanical-sounding. Songs are typically more musical and complex than calls, and are often sung only by males during the breeding season, to attract a mate and claim territory. Calls, on the other hand, have many purposes – there are calls for aggression, warning, identification, flocking, hunger and to announce a food source, among others.


Black-capped Chickadees Celebrate Lengthening Days

1-15-13 black-capped chickadeeEven though black-capped chickadees are named for their chick-a-dee-dee-dee winter song, it is their so-called spring song which resonates most with many of us. It seems as if chickadees are immediately aware of when the days start to get longer, as their mating song begins as early as January. Sounding to some like “fee-bee” and others as “hey-sweetie,” this delightful song consists of two whistles, each about half a second long, with the second whistle a lower pitch than the first. Although these cavity nesters won’t actually be breeding until April, we will continue to be serenaded by their courtship song throughout the winter. As birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes this song, “It is the purest of whistles, this promise of spring.”


Northern Mockingbird

12-3-12 northern mockingbird IMG_7435If you lived in New England in the early 1800’s, the sight and sound of a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) would not be familiar to you. In the mid to late-1800’s they began extending their range northward in eastern North America to the point where they are now year round residents throughout New England. This range expansion is largely attributable to changes in habitat (more fields and shrubby areas), as well as the demise of the practice of capturing mockingbirds for the pet trade. However, during the last 25 years Vermont has experienced a 26% decline in breeding mockingbirds, due largely to diminishing habitat, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas.The Northern Mockingbird is known for its ability to mimic other birds’ songs (a male’s repertoire often contains more than 150 songs, which changes and can increase as the bird ages). In the spring and fall, if you hear a bird singing at night, especially during a full moon, it is often an unmated male mockingbird. At this time of year, you’re more likely to see, not hear, a Northern Mockingbird.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Indigo Bunting

There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting.  The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute.  To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds