Birdsong. Another facet of bird study a person could make a career out of or a lifelong hobby. (It helps if you can hear very well, although there now are various instruments available.)

Birdsong is an appropriate topic at present. The first red-winged blackbird song of spring is eagerly awaited and is pleasant to the ear. To humans, this male announcement of his arrival, his territory, his availability to a suitable female, soon becomes a barely tolerable cacophony near every red-winged breeding colony. Which says more about us than it does about red-winged vocalizations; they’re obviously important to the birds. No predator can fail to know where nests and nestlings are, let alone the adults, but the need to communicate must supersede secrecy for them.

It seems obvious that birds need to, want to, evolved to communicate. Almost all bird species have an organ called the syrinx. The syrinx is a kind of second larynx, which humans possess and produces our voice, and it is unique to birds. Birdsong is not altered by resonating in the birds’ throats or mouths; thus, many bird species can sing complete songs with full mouths or closed bills. Some can produce two separate sounds simultaneously. It all suggests how important birdsong is to birds.

Birds have songs and also calls. Songs seem mostly to be used in reproductive activity, as in courtship and attending nests and nestlings. Calls are used for warning of enemies, begging, flock cohesion and scolding.

The familiar cheery robin’s song, so welcome when robins return, can be less to human taste on a 5 a.m. summer sunrise. The “dawn chorus,” often many birds welcoming the start of a new day during breeding season, can be loud if you’re lucky enough to live near good bird habitat. Birdsong tapers down all too soon, as the breeding urge dissipates.

What do birds that lack a syrinx do to produce a sound? Some snap their bills, or pairs of birds may hit their bills together. Some birds make characteristic noises as air passes through their feathers. A few species can grunt, hiss, plop air sacs or drum. In courtship, whatever works.

Comes now the discovery of another mechanism for producing a courtship song. The male of a rare South American bird, the club-winged manakin, creates a high hum, similar to a sustained violin note, by rubbing specialized wing feathers at about 100 cycles per second.

The club-winged manakin is a small bird, sparrow-size. Its sixth and secondary wing feathers have enlarged and hollow shafts; when these feathers are rubbed at their natural resonant frequency, all nine wing feathers resonate at 1,500 hertz. A violin note close to an F sharp. A second harmonic tone is also produced. One investigator commented that these feathers have become a kind of tuning fork.

Next the investigators will probably find that female club-winged manakins have acute hearing in the F-sharp range of notes. I’d bet on it.

The temptation to comment on current “politics” is great. Irresistible, it turns out. I wouldn’t want to join the Tea Baggers Party; too amorphous for my taste. Same for the nascent Coffee Party; it seems to have cooled off before anyone sampled it.

I’d prefer a Cocktail Party. Maybe could hold up a small sign exhorting, “Shut up and legislate.”

Field Notes: Curious about the pronghorn antelope in Jackson Hole. Some of the summer herd, perhaps 200 animals, did not undertake their annual fall migration over the Gros Ventre Mountains to Wyoming’s Red Desert. Others before them in recent winters and recent memory remained in the valley and perished. This winter, low, mostly uncrusted snow cover permitted them to survive. How many? It’s possible that two small groups in the order of 30-35 animals each made it, one on the National Elk Refuge and another up the Gros Ventre (Eric Cole, Michael Halpin). That would amount to a large percentage of the summering pronghorn herd attempting to bypass migration. What may this mean for their future? Will they attempt nonmigration again next and get caught in a snowy winter? Are we beginning to see all-year pronghorn residents? Is it simply a circumstance of no long-term significance, an aberration? Does anyone else have some winter data on over-wintering pronghorn this winter?

Some pronghorn gambled and won. Some early birds are gambling they can find food and survive in this region. Day after day, observers reporting new arrivals are speaking of spring. But, it’s still March. Don’t lose the ice scraper.

Chipmunks came out on March 22 (Roman Kravetsky), on Saturday (Bruce Hayse). A prairie falcon was on the National Elk Refuge (Kayla Michaels, March 24). Flocks of bluebirds near Kelly, March 23 (Louise Lasley, Tom Stinberg). Canada goose pair established in old osprey nest (Tamara Clause, Fish Creek Road, Friday). Tamara also welcomes flying squirrels to her home. In Teton Valley, Idaho, two kestrels were spotted on Saturday (Brigid Sinrom). Meadowlarks returned to Victor, Idaho, March 23 (Adam Meyer).

Bald eagles on eggs, Canada geese in pairs, waterfowl returning, bluebirds, robins, starlings, crows, suddenly silent magpies. What does it al mean?

Congratulations to the organizers of and participants in the first North American Pika Conference and Citizens Science Night.

© Bert Raynes 2010


Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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