For the Birds Radio Program: Sounds of Winter (reworked)

Original Air Date: Feb. 12, 1988

Laura gets a wee-bit political at the end of this revision.

Duration: 3′44″


Sounds of Winter

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

February is the perfect time to take a walk in the woods up here in the Northland. Birds are few and far between 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 up here, a Black-capped Chickadee is more likely.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Chickadees stay in flocks all winter, and many other species associate with chickadee flocks, like nuthatches. We have two species of nuthatches up here. The smaller is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, which is often found in 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 in deciduous trees. It’s call is louder and deeper–it’s been described as “Yank Yank.”

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

If you’re sitting cozily indoors looking through the window, you can tell your nuthatches apart by looking them in the eye. The Red-breasted Nuthatch has a dark eyeline; the White-breasted not only doesn’t have an eyeline, its pure white cheek highlights its beady black eye. If you’re particularly observant, you can even tell which sex a nuthatch is by looking at its head. If its cap is deep black, sharply contrasting with its blue-gray back, the bird is male. If the cap is duller, blending in with the back color, its a female.

The most abundant bird at many feeders this year is the Pine Siskin. Listen for its zippy chittering:

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

Now that the days are starting to get longer again, you can start listening for the first signs of spring even if the thermometer is reading 20 below. One of the most promising sounds is the drumming of the Downy Woodpecker.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker drumming)

Loud as this is, downies don’t do any damage when they’re drumming–they’re simply making noise to mark their territory and attract a mate. They choose the loudest drumming spot they can find–from hollow trees to gutters and drainpipes. Damage to expensive cedar siding is done far more quietly, as the birds softly probe into the wood for harmful insects.

My favorite sign of spring is the song of the Black-capped Chickadee, which is often heard on frigid days in February.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee song)

The chickadeedeedee call helps keep a flock together. The song is sung to attract a mate and perhaps begin defending a territory. As days lengthen, male chickadees’ hormones start surging in their tiny blood vessels, and they burst into song more and more. It’s sure a prettier sound than presidential candidates Doling out empty promises and beating around the Bush, playing “Simon Says” at primaries and Ducaucases. If you feel like you’re losing Hart, it’s probably time to escape to the outdoors and enjoy the Northland’s frozen beauty.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”