The Singing Tree

An operatic Curve-billed Thrasher

An operatic Curve-billed Thrasher  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As is my habit, I strolled outside at seven this morning, followed our slate walk to the driveway, picked up the papers and headed back. As usual, I paused under the giant 24-year old mesquite that shades our walkway to look for birds. I saw nothing at first, but suddenly became aware of a change from yesterday. The tree was singing, or so it seemed. To be accurate, a Northern Mockingbird thirty feet above me was singing loudly and non-stop, a delightfully unending string of different melodic phrases, and mesmerized, I remained in place enjoying this beautiful song while worry evaporated. A Gila Woodpecker’s call added counterpoint, and then a female Cardinal flew to a branch just inches above me where she broke into a soft, barely audible version of her mate’s glorious song, her open bill fluttering with each chorus of trills. Later, during our usual outdoor breakfast the yard was rich with springtime song, from the mechanical chortling of Cactus Wrens to the mockingbird-like mimicry of Curve-billed Thrashers. Is anything lovelier, more calming than birdsong? I think not.

 

Northern Mockingbirds Mimic other birdsong

Northern Mockingbirds mimic other birdsong  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The singing of birds likely has fascinated humans for as long as they have coexisted, and for good reason; apart from humans, singing is exclusive to birds. Bioacoustics, the study of animal use of sound to communicate, has discovered widespread communication through sound among species ranging from elephants and whales to insects. But this array of trumpets, howls, buzzes and roars doesn’t captivate us like the caroling of birds. And while many birds are restricted to non-musical vocalizations as well (think parrots, ducks and hawks), singing is limited to a single suborder of just one of thirty taxonomic orders of birds. A small percentage of birds taxonomically speaking, but the suborder oscines in the order Passeriformes represents nearly half of the world’s 10,000 avian species. Appropriately, oscines are known as ‘songbirds.’

 

The Northern Cardinal, easily recognized by song

Both male (above) and female Northern Cardinals sing  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Birdsong is not inherited. Almost all birds other than songbirds, and, as far as we know, every other non-human animal are born with genetically encoded vocalizations. But young songbirds learn to sing the way humans learn to speak, by listening and practicing, which is why we find geographic variation in the songs of identical species. And why do birds sing? The answer is ‘it’s complicated.’ Birds seem to sing for the pure joy of it, and maybe that’s true sometimes, but it’s mostly about holding territory and finding a mate. Both males and females use brief vocalizations (calls) such as chips and other simple sounds to communicate location or influence behavior, but singing is almost exclusively the role of males, and heard most often during mating season. It’s known that lengthening spring days trigger hormone release, leading males to establish territories and announce this to both rivals and potential mates by singing. But why don’t all birds sing? And why do some birds sing a single song while others sing dozens? And why do some birds sing one song in the morning and another in the evening? Why do mockingbirds mimic other birds, and why do some females sing? And so on. As I said, it’s complicated. A lot of ornithologists spend a lot of time trying to find answers, aided in part by the incredible Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, a repository of more than 130,000 recordings of animal sounds from gorillas to triggerfish, and consisting predominantly of most of the world’s bird species, including some now extinct. This invaluable resource is not exclusively maintained for scientific research. For 13 bucks, you can download their ‘Essential set of bird sounds for North America’, the most common 1,376 vocalizations of 727 regularly occurring U.S. and Canadian species. Or you can join more than 2 million birders and download the free Audubon Bird Guide app, which gives you the full resources of a hardcover field guide as well as the songs of more than 800 North American species. If you do use an app to learn the songs of birds, please be discrete in its outdoor use—playback can be confusing and irritating to both birds and other birders, and is prohibited in some areas.

 

White-winged Doves sing 'Who cooks for you'

White-winged Doves sing ‘Who cooks for you?’  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Fortunately, we don’t have to know all the answers in order to appreciate the music of birds. Hearing and learning the songs of birds is truly enjoyable, and it’s a thrill to recognize the song of an unseen bird and then see him present himself to erase all doubt.  As you enjoy the melodious spring, remember what a tiny fraction of the world’s life is responsible for your joy. Snakes rattle, frogs croak, lions roar and coyotes howl, but only birds sing.

(This article was first published in the April, 2018 Saddlebag Notes newspaper)

 

 

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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