The light begins to pour through our bedroom skylight by 4:30 a.m. even though the sun doesn’t officially rise until 5:33. It penetrates my eye lids and I throw a pillow over my head to block it out. But before I can fall back asleep I hear the morning music coming through the window. The birds are opening their eyes too, ready to get a jump on another summer day. I can’t help it – as much as I’d like to go back to asleep, I am listening and listing the species in my head as I hear them.
You may live in another part of the country and so your chorus will be different than mine, but everywhere, the ones heard first are those with the largest eyes (in proportion to their bodies), like some of the Thrush family and the Whip-Poor-Will. They tend to live in forests, which are darker in the earliest hours. Most of us are used to hearing the Whip-Poor-Will call at night, repeating their name, with the emphasis on the ‘whip’ and ‘will’ – over and over and over. This bird has a favorite perch somewhere across the road from our house, thankfully, because even at this distance it is loud enough.
An American Robin joins the mix, and it too is singing like a broken record, repeating the same phrase non-stop. A pair has built a nest in the wooden playground in the backyard. More faintly, further away I pick out the “chur chur-lee” of an Eastern Bluebird and I think about the sweet family I saw in the backyard just a few days earlier. The two parents were tirelessly feeding their three fledglings in the branches of the pine tree. The baby’s feathers were a dustier blue version of their parents.
As the clock moves closer to 5 a.m. the American Crows get into the action, with much loud cawing. They too are a family that comes to our yard regularly looking for snacks of dried bread that we have tossed out. The young in this family have a less than lovely caw – you know they’re youngsters by the annoying tone to their voice – in a human we’d call it whining.
The Helmeted Guineafowl lets loose with a loud “gargle” squawk from a perch somewhere close to the house. This is the same bird I wrote about a few weeks ago. It has continued to use our home and property as a base for its daily wanderings. Now we even find it perched on the flowerbox outside the kitchen window, casually grooming its feathers.
Somewhere a woodpecker pounds loudly on a tree and then I hear a Common Loon calling in flight. The chorus is winding down when the Red-eyed Vireo adds its song, which is a recitation of its name at a speed that makes you think of someone who’s had too much coffee, too early in the day. By 5:05 a.m. there is barely a whistle or warble to be heard. Of course there will be birdsong throughout the day, but it will never match the varied chorus of pre-dawn.
Birds sing for a variety of reasons. Earlier in the season it was to find and attract mates. Now it is more likely a way of announcing their territories, so that others will not intrude. Learning to recognize their songs requires us to recognize subtle differences in the tone of a song. Is the voice clear, harsh, scratchy, flute-like, liquid or a trill? Even using words like these for the songs can be a challenge. Then there is the pitch. Is it high, rising, buzzy, or descending? You can read a description of the song in a field guide, but that is not the way to learn it. The best thing is to get a CD or App of bird songs and listen to them, or search on-line for the same reason. And whenever you’re outside and actually see a bird singing, identify it and then watch it sing. Print that image in your mind and it just might pop up more easily the next time you hear it.
Waking to bird song is part of my very earliest morning memories. I can still be transported back to my childhood
bedroom by the soft cooing of a Morning Dove. That sound was as much a part of my summer vacations as that of the ice cream truck’s music. I never would have imagined that sixty years later I would be able to identify so many different types of birds by their songs, while birding in bed.
By Kate Crowley