Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds

Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds

by Donald Kroodsma

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544764224
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/11/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 295,489
File size: 207 MB
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About the Author

A retired biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Donald Kroodsma's work on bird song is legendary. His book The Singing Life of Birds won the 2006 John Burroughs Medal Award and the American Birding Association's Robert Ridgway Distinguished Service Award for excellence in publications pertaining to field ornithology. In 2003 the American Ornithologits' Union called him the "reigning authority on the biology of avian vocal behavior." Kroodsma received his Ph.D. at Oregon State University and has traveled all over North and South America researching bird song. He is a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union and the Animal Behavior Society and has published hundreds of academic and popular articles.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

A Pileated Woodpecker Goes to Her Roost on New Year's Day

New Year's Day, January 1, 6:30 A.M., Lawrence Swamp, Amherst, Massachusetts. 50 minutes until sunrise

I know she's in there. Off the edge of the paved rail-to-trail bike path where I sit, it's just 50 feet to the east across the open ice to the lone dead oak tree, then up the stump 10 feet to the five-inch-diameter hole. She's out of sight just below that entrance, and still sleeping, no doubt, as none of the other day birds are stirring yet either.

I hear only the great horned owls now, three pairs of them hooting back and forth to one another, getting in their last licks before daylight. Their hormones are flowing midwinter, as it's their breeding season, and soon they'll have eggs and young at what seems the oddest time of year. One pair is at least a quarter mile to the east, beyond the railroad tracks on the other side of this beaver-made lake; another pair is behind me toward South East Street; and the third is to my right in the depths of the Lawrence Swamp forest. In each pair I hear the female and male duetting, her who whoo whoo whoohoho whoooo whoo slightly higher-pitched than his.

Yes, I know she's in there because I saw her enter late yesterday afternoon, at 3:44 P.M. on New Year's Eve to be exact, almost three-quarters of an hour before the official sunset. It was a grand entrance, too, entirely unexpected. I was sitting quietly in my camp chair, watching the old oak that had housed a pileated family just this past summer and wondering if anyone was roosting in the cavity over the winter. By 3:20, with the goal of recording anything I might hear, I had started my recorder, pointed the microphone at the nest hole, and laid the recorder and mike on a pack beside me.

With binoculars in hand, I was poised to get a good look at the bird, if one appeared, and I knew exactly what to look for. There had been four in the family, two adults and two young, a male and female of each, and if I got a good look at the bird, I'd know exactly who it was. The adults would have bright yellow irises, but the young ones would still have dark eyes. And the males would have strikingly red crests, crowns, and malar stripes directly behind their bills; the females would have red crests, but their crowns would be yellowish brown, the malar stripes black.

* * *

Waiting here this New Year's morning, I replay yesterday afternoon's events:

Sitting, waiting, watching, listening on New Year's Eve, the last day of 2003 ... a downy woodpecker calls, then a hairy woodpecker, and a crow caws in the distance. More birds chime in: white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, and a red squirrel, an honorary bird given its wonderful chatter.

On the bike path behind me are a few in-line skaters and cyclists, but mostly just people out for a leisurely stroll with either children or a dog, all curious about what would cause me to sit here, motionless.

"See any birds?" asks the woman with her young boy. "Not yet" [a true answer, given that I had only heard those birds, but an evasively simple answer, too, hoping that my guests wouldn't linger too long]. "What we're looking for is the beavers. I think they made a little dam over there, but I don't see their home." "Their home is just beyond the [huge] dam; can't miss it." "Was it where all those sticks were, because we were pulling sticks from that pile." "Yes, that's their home." [Embarrassed laughter.]

A starling whistles and begins singing off to the right. In his song I hear killdeer and kestrel sounds, starlings being superb but underappreciated mimics (see page 139).

"You going to see something?" "Maybe." "What are you seeing in the past?" "Woodpeckers." "Oh, woodpeckers! We are looking for beavers; a gorgeous day; you don't get cold sitting there?" "Not yet." "Happy New Year." "Yes, to you, too."

"Hello." "Hello." "You should build yourself a little bonfire, huh?" It's a cheerful New Year's Eve crowd.

Amtrak! Right on schedule. The distant whistle to the right is the first clue, but seconds later the train is roaring by, the LEDs on my recorder a screaming red to warn that the electronics are severely overloaded. With my ears momentarily shut down, I now see how yellow the light is just before sunset, the sun's rays filtered by the pines and oaks behind me and shining in yellow splotches on the whitish, limbless trunks of the drowned forest before me. Yes, the beavers have done their thing, damming the waters, killing the trees, creating this woodpecker heaven. In almost every tree I can see where the woodpeckers have worked, with nesting cavities for the downy and hairy and red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, and for the northern flickers, too.

It is as if she waited for the brief lull that followed the train, and I am ever so grateful (track 1–1; figure 1). To the far left, the northeast, I first hear her, calling in flight, a wild kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk, seven or eight a second, and I then see her, too, in undulating flight, coming right toward me. It is a six-second announcement she makes as she approaches, kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk, and then Thunk! as she lands in a beanpole of a tree trunk perhaps 30 feet to the right of the nest cavity and about 20 feet up. She continues calling, kuk-kuk-kukkuk, more slowly now, and a little lower-pitched; my eyes are glued to her features. A female! A young female! Her scarlet red crest is raised and glowing in the evening sun, her malar stripe black, her pitch-black eye as intense as her calls are now wild and uneven, the spacing irregular, a loud, laughing, primeval cackle.

For a good half minute she perches there, calling just 20 yards away, flaunting all her features. What a magnificent creature, this largest of North American woodpeckers, the better part of a power-packed pound, 10 times the weight of the downy woodpecker that I heard earlier. Her outstretched wings span two and a half feet, all black except for the white patch at the base of her outer flight feathers. Ah, and look at those massive feet, two toes in front, two in back, the woodpecker's zygodactyl pattern. I note the stiffened tail feathers, propping her up against the vertical trunk; the distinctive head and neck pattern, black and white topped with a red crest, a yellowish brown crown between the crest and the bill. And the feature I most remember, the pitch-black eyes, confirming that she hatched just this past summer and is only half a year old.

And that chisel for a bill. And the tongue within, one of the wonders of the natural world. I have watched these woodpeckers feed, hammering away at some tree, then inserting the bill deeply into the tree, standing there motionless except for a quivering of the forehead. I could imagine that long, sticky tongue protruding a good three inches beyond the bill and exploring the cavity within the tree. Anything not sticking to the tongue might be impaled on the barbs of the bony tip, then withdrawn into the bill and swallowed. What a marvelous tongue, lying on the floor of the closed mouth, extending to the back of the throat and then splitting into two, one half to each side of the neck. Small bones wrapped in muscles run to the back of the head, where they again become a single muscle envelope that then passes over the top of the head and down the forehead to the top of the bill. Although it is possible that a pileated woodpecker feeding on carpenter ants deep within a tree is wrinkling her forehead while thinking grand thoughts, it is the tongue muscles beneath the skin that make her brow quiver.

"There is audio content at this location that is not currently supported for your device. The caption for this content is displayed below."

Listen to track 1-1

My lady woodpecker pauses in her calling for a second, utters a single kuk, pauses another second, and then, over just a few seconds, gradually picks up the pace and the pitch, followed by a two-second burst of her most intense calling as she launches from her perch and swoops down to her nesting cavity, calling briefly at the entrance at a more leisurely pace before popping inside.

I check my watch: 3:44 P.M.

"Good afternoon; whatcha seeing?" "A pileated woodpecker." "Hmmm; if you ever get to Gate 29, or was that 30, at Quabbin [Reservoir], plowed all the way down, I saw six turkeys down there."

There she is again, just her head sticking out of the entrance. It's 3:50 P.M. What's she up to now? I study her head again, confirming all the features I had seen before. It is a young female, almost certainly the one who was raised in this very hole during the summer and captured on film by countless photographers. And in three minutes she disappears into the cavity.

For another 45 minutes I sit, reflecting, watching, listening, and enjoying the smiling faces of inquisitive passersby. This young pileated seems to be first to her roosting place, as I still hear all of the other birds in the area. A bluebird calls tuwee tuwee, and high overhead I hear jip jip, jip jip jip, calls of either a crossbill or a redpoll flying by.

"What's that guy doing?" asks the child with the woman. "He's sitting here watching that hole in the tree, because there's a great big woodpecker sleeping in that tree overnight." "Jingle bells, jingle bells [the little boy sings as they walk away], oh what fun it is to ride, in a one-horse open sleigh, HEY ... HEY ..." and into the distance he fades.

* * *

That was yesterday afternoon, almost 15 hours ago. Fifteen hours! What does she do in that cavity overnight for 15 hours? She sleeps some, no doubt, but for the entire 15 hours? I imagine being cramped in her small cavity, but she must be comfortable, cozy even. But now I wait for her, to hear how she greets the day. Will she emerge as emphatically as she went to roost? Or will she slip quietly into the day? I will soon know.

The great horned owls continue to call. I wonder where she goes during the day, how far? Does she meet any other pileateds? Does she have a prospective mate, a male she meets and spends much of the day with? Or is she still single? And just how does she find enough food during the day to sustain her through these long winter nights?

At 6:54 A.M., still 25 minutes before sunrise, I hear the first day birds awakening, a subtle chorus of high-pitched calls from what must be a junco flock that has roosted nearby. Two minutes later crows caw far to the east, followed soon by chickadees and nuthatches. They are my signal to begin recording, as I want to capture the sounds of her departure.

Recorder slung over my shoulder, headphones slipped over my ears, I aim the sight of my parabolic microphone at the cavity's entrance. I will now hear every peep from her, every scratch of those zygodactyl feet on her roosting cavity, and as she emerges any kuk-kuk-kuk will blow me away.

More birds awaken, the bluebirds and goldfinches and the red squirrel, as I hear the tuwee tuwee off to the left, the per-chick-o-ree per-chick-oree flight notes overhead, and the chatter behind me.

There's her head! It's 7:02, 17 minutes before sunrise. She faces to her left. With my binocular vision, I see only her, but as she eyes me with her right eye, she also sees everything on the other side of her head with her left eye. In 30 seconds she's gone, down into the cavity again.

At 7:10 she sticks her head out just briefly, for five seconds, then disappears again. She's getting restless, it would seem. A half minute later a hairy woodpecker calls; it's the first woodpecker I have heard. A minute later the redpolls or crossbills call jip jip overhead.

At 7:12 she's back. First it's her head, then half her body is poised at the cavity entrance. She swings her head to the left, then to the right, while I try to imagine what she sees with an eye on each side of her head. She then cocks her head, the right eye toward the ground, the left skyward. What does she see? What is she thinking? Does she hear how the world has awakened around her, the downy and hairy woodpeckers now both calling, starlings whistling and singing, nuthatches yanking, goldfinches calling per-chick-o-ree as they commute overhead, crows cawing in the distance, the red squirrel behind me chattering away?

Five minutes of looking is apparently enough, and at 7:17 she erupts from the cavity, flying to her left, to the tree from which she swooped to the cavity 1572 hours ago. She taps the tree once with her bill, then climbs, tapping some more, until she's at perhaps twice the height of her roosting cavity, and then she launches into the air to the northeast, the direction from which she came yesterday, flying off into the distance and disappearing two minutes before official sunrise. Her only sounds have been those of her feet, her wings, and her bill. Not a peep did she utter as she greeted the new year.

I'm surprised, even disappointed. How could she greet the new day so unceremoniously? Shouldn't there be a loud kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kukkuk to announce the day, or a drumroll on a nearby tree? "Nope," I hear her say. Perhaps, I think, she has saved her theatrics for the distant place to which she flies. Perhaps. But if so, then why the grand entry here last night at her roosting cavity?

* * *

Now hooked on sharing this New Year's Day with this young woodpecker, I return in the late afternoon, stationing myself again at the roosting cavity. It's 3:20, and if she keeps the same schedule as yesterday, she'll arrive in 24 minutes. I lower the headphones over my ears, start the recorder, and aim the parabola in the direction from which I expect her to arrive. Now focused solely on the sounds about me, I hear overhead the jet airplane and the rustle of last year's oak leaves in the wind. In-line skaters whiz by behind me, a child yells in the distance, horns honk.

"You could probably be arrested for that." To my immediate left stands my friend John Green, ardent naturalist and photographer, commenting on my appearance and my no doubt nefarious activities. He quickly tells me how exciting a summer it was watching the woodpeckers in this nesting cavity, how on the Fourth of July he spent eight hours here. (I missed it all, as I spent the summer bicycling across the country.) There were two young birds, he explains, a male and a female, and their voices changed as they aged. And the adult male did most of the feeding. And — I interrupt: "I'd love to talk more, but I need to excuse myself, as I don't want to miss what I hope will happen here. In just 10 minutes, at 3:44, she'll arrive. But no guarantees, you understand. You're welcome to stay, but please be as quiet as possible." As I turn away, another voice pops up. "What are you doing?" I ignore the question, hoping that John will quietly explain.

I return to listening, listening for any clue to her arrival. Behind me I hear the swish-swish of polyester, the clomp-clomp of walking steps. Another swish-swish and clomp-clomp, this one faster, jogging. Nuthatches. And the Amtrak! Drat, same time as yesterday, I should have known — please hurry, I think, get by us before she arrives. It seems an eternity, but the train passes, the horn soon blowing in the distance toward Amherst. In the relative quiet again, I hear a red-breasted nuthatch, distant traffic, a bicyclist behind me, the distant beep-beep-beep of something big in reverse. A child on a scooter behind me pauses, then apparently moves on, all heard over my headphones. "Trust me, she's my best friend, but ...," then silence as the couple passes, the conversation resuming in muffled tones down the path. I sense three shadows behind me, at least four of us standing here, waiting, watching, listening, though perhaps a larger crowd has now gathered. Whoever is behind me, they are quiet, and that's all that matters.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Birdsong by the Seasons"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Donald Kroodsma.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Contents,
Copyright,
Dedication,
Acknowledgments,
Important: Read Me First!,
JANUARY,
A Pileated Woodpecker Goes to Her Roost on New Year's Day,
The Harbingers of Spring (Robins) in Their Winter Roost,
An All-nighter Among the Wading Birds in the Everglades,
FEBRUARY,
The Limpkins of Corkscrew Swamp,
Florida Scrub-Jay Families,
The Anhingas of Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park,
MARCH,
Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River,
APRIL,
A Tropical Pilgrimage,
MAY,
Two Virginia Mimics: Brown Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo,
Baltimore Oriole — She Sings, Too,
A Prairie Dawn on Our Pawnee National Grassland,
JUNE,
Belted Kingfishers on the Connecticut River,
Listening with Dave: A June Dawn in Hatfield Cemetery,
Blackburnian Warblers of Mount Greylock,
JULY,
The Dawn and Day Songs of Scarlet Tanagers,
Yearling Indigo Buntings Learn the Local Microdialect,
AUGUST,
The Cedar Waxwing: A Songbird Without a Song?,
Young of the Year Practice Their Songs,
SEPTEMBER,
A Wood Thrush Goes to Roost,
The Flight Calls of Nocturnal Migrants,
OCTOBER,
The Autumnal Drumming of a Ruffed Grouse,
NOVEMBER,
Time Travel: Revisiting Two Hermit Thrushes in June,
A Northern Mockingbird Defends Her Winter Territory,
DECEMBER,
The Winter Solstice Is the First Day of Spring,
How to Listen to the Bird Sounds on the Two Compact Discs,
How to Record a Singing Bird,
Notes,
Bibliography,
Index,
About the Author,
Footnotes,

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