(note the following was published after the severe desert winter of 2010/2011)
After the cheerless chill of an especially harsh winter, and the depressing sight of moribund palms and citrus, it’s nice to hear our birds singing again. We may not enjoy the rich aroma of orange blossoms this April, but at least we can count on birdsong. Living where we do, we enjoy a significant and widely-ranging variety of bird calls and songs, from the mechanical rattle of Cactus Wrens to the operatic repertoire of Northern Mockingbirds and Curve-billed Thrashers. As I write this on a balmy Saturday afternoon, two of these three compete in the background, while Mourning Doves and a palm tree-nesting pair of Great Horned Owls trade whoos and hoots.
Although some birds, like the Northern Cardinal, sing together, male and female, year-round, most of our birdsong comes from the males, and usually only from late winter into spring and summer, when mates are sought and territories marked. Calls, rather than songs, dominate most bird vocalizations the rest of the time. Differentiating between calls and songs is not always easy, but in general, songs are melodious, while calls are short, to-the-point communications, like chips, chatters and whistles. The Curve-billed Thrasher provides a good example, with his unmistakable and sharp whistle call, and his springtime rambling, unending song.
Young birds mostly learn to sing from adult males, and mimids, like the Northern Mockingbird and Curve-billed Thrasher acquire songs from any bird they happen to hear. For our resident mockingbirds and thrashers, this means their songs reflect those of other residents and passing migrants. Migratory mimids, such as eastern Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds, build much larger and unusual song repertoires. A New Jersey catbird, for example, was heard imitating a Central American flycatcher, and the Brown Thrasher’s repertoire exceeds 2,000 songs. You can distinguish our mockingbirds from our thrashers, even though superficially they may sound the same. The mockingbird’s songs are more stereotyped, and careful listening will reveal a pattern of repetitive phrases, while the Curve-billed Thrasher’s song is more chaotic and innovative with less repetition. Thrashers can seem to sing incessantly, sometimes continuing a complex song for more than 10 minutes. Unmated males, perhaps for obvious reasons, are particularly vocal.
One of the pleasures of birding is learning to recognize birds by their calls and songs. Not always easy, especially for those of us with diminished hearing, but especially rewarding when you identify a bird by ear, and then have the bird appear to confirm your guess. Some of our birds are pretty easy to learn this way, such as the Cactus Wren mentioned above, and Gambel’s Quail, with its insistent pup waaay pup call. Once you’ve heard the Greater Roadrunner’s spooky, hollow clatter it’s hard to forget, as is the chatter of a Hooded Oriole. Song can vary by location, too. If you moved here from back east, you may not recognize our cardinal’s song immediately, even though the species is the same. Describing birdsong phonetically is an art in itself, akin to a sommelier describing wine. One of my favorites is the quite accurate description of a Rufous-winged Sparrow’s song as sweet, clear notes that accelerate, suggesting the sound a ping pong ball makes under a lowering paddle. If you have a chance to go birding near Mazatlan, Mexico, you’ll find many birds easily identified by their unusual calls. For example, the Golden-cheeked Woodpecker’s weeechu weeechu sounds like a child’s squeeze toy, and the Yellow-winged Cacique does a perfect imitation of a tricycle bell’s ching ka-ching ka-ching.
Our Great-tailed Grackles are vocal all year, though it would be a stretch to call their vocalization singing. The Sibley Guide to Birds describes our grackle’s ‘song’ as a series of loud, rather unpleasant noises: rattles, sliding tinny whistles, rustling sounds like thrashing branches or a flushing toilet. Not exactly a springtime serenade, but it does get your attention.
(This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, following a particularly harsh and freezing winter.)