For the Birds Radio Program: Spring Songs

Original Air Date: May 25, 1988

Laura would rather you were outside listening to actual birds right now.

Duration: 4′00″


(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

The Information Age has given us laser photos and satellite maps from the other side of the globe, sophisticated electronics, and even radio birdwatchers. Yes, the era of communication has given us access to a world of information, but, ironically, it has shut us out from what’s going on right in our own backyards. Right this minute there are people listening to their radio earphones while they walk to work or run off last night’s dinner, cheating themselves out of spring itself. Spring birding shouldn’t include jail birds, legal eagles, and political loons and old coots–news stories can wait when an oriole sings.

(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

The melody of that enticing whistle varies from one oriole to another, and the patterns show regional dialects. So in May you’re not limited to hearing the songs of just neighborhood orioles–you can also hear the songs of migrants on their way north. But if you wear earphones all day, you’ll be limited to ads about oriole cookies.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are known for their song, which supposedly sounds like a robin with a sore throat.

(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak)

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is unusual because the females sing almost as readily as the males. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also have a unique squeaky call note which is diagnostic.

(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak call note)

Alert Northlanders are also noticing other songs. The Ovenbird’s “teacher teacher” is ringing through the woods again.

(Recording of an Ovenbird)

Ovenbirds are small warblers with a subtle beauty. Their song can be easily heard from a moving car, even at 55, if your windows and your ears are open.

Another song you can hear from a moving car, even though it’s surprisingly quiet and short, is the sweet snore notes of the Savannah Sparrow.

(Recording of a Savannah Sparrow)

If you listen carefully to these unassuming roadside birds, you can learn to tell the individuals apart. Some of them have little hiccups at the beginning or end of their songs, some buzz slightly longer than others, and some have a recognizable quality to their buzz which distinguishes them. Savannah Sparrows are one of the most common birds in open areas of the Northland, yet most people have never even heard of them. And even the people who know of them seldom bother to notice their little song.

Two migrant sparrows that are easy to identify by song are the White-crowned Sparrow and Harris’ Sparrow. The White-crowned Sparrow’s song begins with some plaintive whistled notes and then breaks into a jumble of sweet buzzy notes:

(Recording of a White-crowned Sparrow)

Harris’ Sparrow whistles in a minor key:

(Recording of a Harris’ Sparrow)

The song that people most often ask me about is the whistle of the White-throated Sparrow, fondly nicknamed the Peabody Bird:

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

White-throated Sparrows remain in the Northwoods all summer, so it’s worth keeping those earphones off at least until August. With natural music to entertain you, you’ll be surprised how little you’ll miss.

(Recording of a White-crowned Sparrow)

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