Aside from Christmas carolers, Sequim's outdoor singers in winter are birds.
Bird voices take two forms -- calls and songs. Male and female birds of most species are born with the ability to emit one or more calls. Only males sing, however, except for a few species like Purple Finches. Experts believe that songs have to be learned. A male bird typically learns songs by imitating his father.
The first singers I heard in 2010 were Song Sparrows, in early January. A male Song Sparrow ultimately learns two dozen or so different songs, starting not long after leaving the nest. There's no time to waste, as a newborn male will need to find his own territory and become a breeder the following spring.
Once on territory, a male Song Sparrow uses songs to mark and maintain the boundaries of that territory. He does so in an unusual fashion, reflecting the social structure of this species. Adding to the repertoire he learned from dad, a male learns the basic songs of the males in adjacent territories. He sings the song of each immediate neighbor as he moves around the perimeter of his territory. An unusual form of male bonding.
As birders, we don't attempt to memorize the individual songs of Song Sparrows. Instead, we recognize them because of an underlying pattern in their songs. A typical song starts with two or more notes on the same pitch, followed by a trill, then a jumble of notes. Birders listen for this pattern, allowing for the possibility of a bird ending its song prematurely.
I heard my first singing Black-capped Chickadee this winter in late January. Our relatively abundant Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees make their familiar chick-a-dee-dee calls throughout the year. Of the two chickadees, however, only the Black-capped Chickadee sings. Its song is a whistled "fee-bee" or "fee-fee-bee-bee", with the "bee" a half step or full step lower in pitch than the "fee."
Early in February I heard my first Bewick's Wren (pronounced like the car name, Buick) of the season. This bird has many songs, which I won't attempt to describe here. Its beautiful, mostly clear, singing voice contrasts sharply with its buzzy calls from underbrush.
In mid-February, I heard my first Spotted Towhee. If you have lived in the east, you may be familiar with the "drink-your-tea" song of its cousin, the Eastern Towhee. The Spotted Towhee drops the first two syllables of that song, simply uttering a trilled "tea" on a single pitch, which stretches the concept of a song. One wonders how long it takes a male towhee to learn this trill, if indeed it must be learned rather than being innate. I've never heard one practicing, unlike with Song or Golden-crowned Sparrows.
The challenge for birders is to distinguish the towhee's song from the similar trilled song of the Dark-eyed Junco -- which I also first heard this year about the same time.
Soon after first hearing a towhee, I heard my first Winter Wren singing its remarkable song. It's a jumble of approximately 180 notes squeezed into a few seconds and sung by a tiny bird that would easily fit in the palm of your hand. I accept that this song must be learned rather than being innate. But I wonder how much actual schooling is entailed. I have a mental image of dad saying "Tweety, you almost have it, but notes number 59, 83, and 137 are off pitch. If you ever get on American Idol, they're going to rip you for being pitchy unless you knuckle down and master this song."
The day before President's Day, I heard my first Hutton's Vireo of the season. Singing vireos are known, in birder lingo, for asking questions, then answering them. This species strings the questions in a row -- a sequence of "zu-wee" notes, each rising in pitch. Later, the bird will switch to emitting a string of notes, each of which descends in pitch -- providing answers to the questions he asked earlier. In spring, we will listen for a visiting Cassin's Vireo, which follows each questioning zu-wee with an immediate answer.
If you would like to enrich your life by learning to recognize the voices of these birds and others, come join us on our weekly Wednesday morning bird walks. They start at 8:30 at the Dungeness River Audubon Center on Hendrickson Rd.
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