For the Birds Radio Program: Sounds of Winter

Original Air Date: Jan. 9, 1987

What bird sounds are you likely to hear in Duluth right now?

Duration: 3′36″


Sounds of Winter

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

January is the perfect time to take a walk in the woods of the Northland. Birds are few and far between up here in winter, but that makes the ones we see more precious. Listen on a still, frigid day to all the bird sounds that reach your bundled ears. First, of course, you have to learn to filter out snow-crunching boots, the click of a jacket zipper, and the squeak of binocular straps. In most cities and towns, the first sound you hear is usually a starling, House Sparrow, or pigeon. But in Duluth, a Black-capped Chickadee is more likely.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Chickadees move together in flocks all winter, and often other species join a chickadee flock. This year there’s a record number of Boreal Chickadees in town, and most of these are seen moving in flocks with Black-caps. A lot of people wonder if they’ll be able to pick out a Boreal from the familiar Black-caps, but it’s easy. The black cap of our familiar chickadee ends at the nape of the neck–the back is a contrasting pale gray. The cap is brown on a Boreal Chickadee, and so’s the back, so the bird is much darker than a Black-capped Chickadee. It spends most of its time in spruce trees, and moves more sluggishly than a Black-cap. Usually the way people notice it is by its call. The Boreal Chickadee sounds like a Black-cap with a terminal disease.

(Recording of a Boreal Chickadee)

Two species of nuthatches often join chickadee flocks, too. The smaller of these is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, which spends a lot of time near the tops of spruce trees. Its call has been described as a tiny tin horn:

(Recording of a Red-breasted Nuthatch)

The White-breasted Nuthatch is larger than the Red-, and spends more time feeding in deciduous trees, but the best way to tell the two apart is by the eye. The Red-breasted has a dark line through the eye and cheek; the White-breasted has a pure white cheek to highlight its beady black eye. The White-breasted Nuthatch’s call is louder and deeper than the Red’s:

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

Now that the days are starting to get longer again, it’s easy to hear signs of spring in Duluth. Listen for the drumming of the Downy Woodpecker.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker drumming)

Loud as this is, downys don’t do any damage when they’re drumming– they’re simply making noise to mark their territory and to attract a mate. Damage to expensive cedar siding is done far more quietly, as the birds softly probe into the wood for insects.

My favorite sound of mid-winter is the spring song of the Black- capped Chickadee. Usually the male sings, although occasionally females do, too, unlike most song birds.

(Recording of a chickadee song.)

So get outside and enjoy Duluth’s frozen beauty. This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”