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Birding by Ear

 I was walking along a path in Michigan’s Ludington State Park when I came across a couple leaning close to each other, she focusing binoculars on something high up in a tree and he talking close to her ear.

“Seen anything interesting,” I asked. “I thought I heard Kinglets up there,” the man replied. “My wife is scoping them out for us – she is hard of hearing, so she tells me where to look: I don’t see so well anymore.” “There they are,” she exclaimed, “Ruby Crowned,” and all three of us tipped our heads to search the forest canopy.

That was some years ago, when my sight and hearing were in fine fettle; now that I can’t hear the high pitched calls of the Kinglets any more, I have been thinking how dependent I have always been upon birding by ear.

This June in at my Betsie River cottage in Northern Michigan, the air was full of the songs of birds I never did see. These were the bell like, richly melodic Baltimore Oriole, a steady stream of “Vireo!” from some kind of Vireo hidden among the leaves in the tree tops. a House Wren like a musical wooden waterfall somewhere in the undergrowth, and the “Weep! Weep!” of a Great Crested Flycatcher, perhaps the same one who carried on all last summer without my seeing him once.

It is a good thing I still have (most of) my hearing, though my friend Gene has found a handy dandy amplifier with earbuds attached to a collar you wear around your neck. I may come to that soon because I am so dependent upon the “I hear it…What is it… Where is it” procedure.  

For example, Redstarts nest along my driveway most summers, and when I hear their Tsipping and Tseeping  back there, I know it is time to  look for them. The Flicker’s Woody Woodpecker hilarity and the nesting call of the Common Yellow Throat alert me to find my binocs and get going. If I am very familiar with a song I enter the bird in my daily list, even if I haven’t seen it singing. The Common Yellowthroat is very elusive, but its Witchety, Wichety from  deep in the shrubbery along the river bank is enough for me.  

However, both the Redstarts and Yellowthroats nesting along the Betsie have developed puzzling variations.

For one whole summer the Yellowthroat switched to a melodic “Richelieu, Richelieu,” while I discovered that male Redstarts, when courting females, emit queries in their direction in a much more melodic strain than their ordinary lisping.

And then there was the time two Cardinals were going at it right in front of me. Averting my head in embarrassment, I was suddenly bombarded with a fully developed post-coital aria. To my amazement, the pair were now side by side, but it was the female, head atilt in adoration, producing a full-throated celebration of her sensual satisfaction.

How do birds learn to sing? In their first year as adults, Song Sparrows start the summer with only the initial phrase of the species’ melody; somewhere along the way they develop the complete song. Are they imitating an adult? One researcher who raised two male Song Sparrows in her house found their songs poorer in melodic development than in the wild. I once observed a Papa and Baby Common Yellowthroat hopping about on the ground, the Papa singing the species song before offering the baby a grub, a process he repeated over and over with occasional tentative and (perhaps?) imitative squeaks from his offspring.

There are lots of helpful verbalizations for bird watching beginners:

Goldfinch actually say “Tweet, tweet, Towhees say “drink your TEA,” Oven Birds yell “Teacher, Teacher!” I never see who calls hauntingly in the night, but Screech owls whinny on a descending scale and Barred Owls ask Who Cooks for You? Who Cooks for You Too?”

Our bend on the Betsie has an amplifying echo, so that when I am standing on the bank in my pajamas the Mourning Dove solo sounds like a duet. That Coo Coo Roo-Cooing reaches deep into my brain,to a place where I possess neither speech nor cognition,  because it is the very first sound I remember hearing, reaching my crib through my open window in a New England summer to herald a natural world I belonged to, somewhere close by, suffused with  comfort and splendor.