As I write this, our front yard is full of birds. One of my favourites during this late part of April is the white-crowned sparrow, which is making its massive spring migration to the north. My friend Mel Colson says that the male’s mating call is this: poor-Will-peeeeed-his-pants. I wouldn’t forget that mnemonic device soon. (Remember that word to impress your teacher or parents.)
There are also juncos all over the yard, usually just saying tik, although sometimes the mating call, a trill, sounding like priiing can be heard. (Like a high-pitched telephone from the days when telephones didn’t make beeps, bops and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.)
This tik is distinguished from the check, chak of the red-winged blackbirds. Male redwings, which should be named orange-and-yellow-shouldered epauletted blackbirds, sing kong-ka-rheee or oh-ka-leee. Maybe red-wing is laughing at us, saying chortle-leeeee! as one listener suggested.
Chickadees say their own name, including nickname “Dee.” Their spring song is spring’s here. But more commonly they say their own name. Chickadee demonstrates the literary technique called onomatopoeia. (Also a good word to impress others.) If you’re fortunate enough to hear a bird sing whip-poor-will you know another onomatopoeic name.
Meanwhile, robins say cheeri-up, cheeri-down.
I’ve only seen a warbling vireo a few times, but this is what one writer suggests he sings: If I sees you; I will seize you; and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt [to a caterpillar]. Don’t mess with this tiny bird.
Barn swallows, say Cornell University experts, “have a twitter-warble song during courtship and egg-laying, with a long series of continuous warbling sounds followed by up to a dozen rapid, mechanical-sounding whirrs. The song can last 4–20 seconds and is often introduced and followed by a chirp.” But Cornell hasn’t come up with a mnemonic for the twitter-warble.
If you live in bobolink territory, you may have heard it sing: bobolink, bobolink, bobolink-spank-spink.
The beautiful song of the hermit thrush is sometimes described as Veer-veer-veer-veer-Why don’tcha come to me? Here I am right near you. They are shy birds with ventriloquial (another great word) voices which means they are hard to locate while they are singing.
The barred owl is waiting for lunch but is fussy about chefs so he sings, Who cooks for you?
Meanwhile. . . if you hear an olive-sided flycatcher, run to the liquor store because that bird is telling you, Quick – three beers.
Personally, I’d prefer it if most of our birds had onomatopoeic names. I wonder if Eve and Adam named them that way in whatever language they used?
I’m not very good at identifying bird songs, but at age 71 I’m getting better. I used to know only that crows said caw and that mallard ducks made a quack. Last week we listened every night to something saying g-dap, quak, quak, g-dack, g-duck. I figured out right away that it wasn’t a geo-duck clam, but what was it? Answer correctly and win . . . absolutely nothing. Not even a new word.
Three busy sparrows soon take up the song,
Chaffinches and blue tits join the throng,
A pattern of bright music nets the air
And catches me off guard and makes me long,
Long for the joys that I have yet to sing
Long for the sudden flight, the lifting wing,
Long for the songs of summers yet to come
Long for the freedom future days may bring.
Though sorrow runs so deep, and our brief songs
Are burdened still with all the ills and wrongs
Of this sad exile, something in us sings,
Sings from that garden where the soul belongs.
–British poet Malcolm Guite, from his May 1, 2020 “Quarantine Quatrains.” The photo is of a white-crowned sparrow in Curt’s garage.
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