Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder (or beer holder, according to a plaque in my family room. But that’s another story.) And this time of year, we certainly have a lot of beauty to behold.
But you know what’s really cool? Not all of it is the kind of beauty you see. Some is the kind you hear.
Take a walk in the woods some calm spring morning, or evening, and your ears will be dazzled by the array of sounds in the trees. Tweets, trills and warbles fill the air as songbirds declare their territories and compete to impress their mates or, sometimes, just stay in touch.
At the top of the list as far as melodies go has to be the wood thrush. Flutelike and dare I say haunting, the song stands out among other woodland music especially at dusk, when the male of this species may be the only bird left singing.
A male wood thrush was my constant companion during the years I worked summer evening programs at Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora. Whether I was setting up to look for lightning bugs or bats, his song would keep me company as I laid the wood in the fireplace, previewed the trails we would walk and slapped at the ever-present mosquitoes – a minor inconvenience in exchange for the splendor of his melodies.
But through all those years of our association, I never once saw my tuneful buddy. Although related to the American robin, one of our area’s most observable singers, wood thrushes combine their cryptic coloration with equally secretive habits. In fact their scientific name, Hylocichla mustelina, means weasel-y thrush as a reference to their elusive ways.
If you or your neighbors have a birdhouse in the yard, you’re no doubt familiar with the drawn-out prattling song of the house wren, Troglodytes aedon. This bird, whose genus name references its preference for nesting in cavities, is drab in coloration but dynamic with its ditties.
Humans have welcomed the presence of this chatty little guy for ages. The Chippewa paid special note to his singing abilities by bestowing the name o-du-na’-mis-sug-ud-da-we’-shi, the little bird with the big noise. And John James Audubon, who famously depicted birds in their natural habitats, painted a pair of house wrens tending to a nest of offspring inside a stovepipe hat.
(The house wren, it turns out, has a darker side to its behavior in that it will seek out the nests of other birds and puncture the eggs of what it sees as competition. Bluebirds, woodpeckers, chickadees and swallows as well as noncavity-nesters such as phoebes and warblers are all victims of record of marauding house wrens. More on this behavior, and one woman’s crusade against it, next week.)
The list of birds with plain plumage but beautiful songs goes on … Song sparrow, house finch, catbird and brown thrasher, to name a few. But not every bird trades in handsome plumage in exchange for its ability to sing.
The other day I was leading a group through the oak grove behind Hickory Knolls when we were stopped dead in our tracks by the clear notes being sung by a nearby Baltimore oriole.
The mnemonic “Here, here, come right here, dear” sort of fits the drawn-out call of this striking black-and-orange songster, but what always amazes me is how well they blend into the foliage that has recently popped out (and made birding among the trees even more trying for marginal birders like me).
As we searched for the source of the song, we heard it joined by another – the whistling lilt of a responsive female. Outfitted in muted yellow-orange coupled with gray wings, we caught a brief glimpse of her in the lower branches of a small cherry tree before she whisked back up into the privacy of the oaks.
Whether the source of the songs is bold and beautiful or dull and drab, the time we have left to hear them is relatively short.
Many species wrap up their breeding activities by July, and usually by August the trees are completely devoid of singing birds.
But that’s OK because after all birds aren’t the only crooners in nature’s chorus. Come July we’ll take a Good Natured look at some of summer’s loudest musicians, and the instruments they strum, pulse and plunk.
Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to email@example.com.