For the Birds Radio Program: Birds Heard More Than Seen

Original Air Date: July 27, 1989

Some sounds in the soundtrack of our lives are made by birds that we seldom see.

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Birds Heard More Than Seen

(Recording of a Great Crested Flycatcher)

That’s the “Wheep” call of the Great Crested Flycatcher, a bird much more often heard than seen. These birds of open forests nest in tree cavities, or occasionally bird boxes or even mailboxes, but spend most of their time in the forest canopy, hidden from view. You might never know a pair is in your neighborhood except for an occasional “Wheep!”

(Recording of a Great Crested Flycatcher)

There are many common birds that people never notice unless they hear them. One of the most common forest birds of all, the Red-eyed Vireo, is very difficult to get a look at in summer, but its song rings throughout the woods virtually all day. The Red-eyed Vireo has a voice very much like a robin’s, but instead of singing in long sentences as robins do, it sings single words at a time.

(Recording of a Red-eyed Vireo)

One of the most common backyard birds of the Northland, the Chipping Sparrow, is small and inconspicuous, but its dry insect-like trill can be heard just about everywhere.

(Recording of a Chipping Sparrow)

People often ask me about the strange call they hear in the evening woods while sitting out at their cabins. In just about every case, they’re talking about a Veery.

(Recording of a Veery)

Veeries are thrushes, related to robins. Their unusual song is impossible for a mere human to reproduce. That’s because birds don’t have a larynx—songbirds produce their songs in a unique voice box called a syrinx.

One of my favorite birds, the Ovenbird, is an elegantly plain looking warbler, but one that stays hidden in the woods. Only its song proclaims its presence–with a loud, ringing “Teacher teacher teacher!”

(Recording of an Ovenbird)

Another relative of the Ovenbird which people don’t notice unless they recognize its song is the Yellow Warbler. This bird sings several different songs, but the most common one follows the pattern, “Sweet, sweet sweet, aren’t I so sweet?”

(Recording of a Yellow Warbler)

Warblers often have secretive habits. Another, the Common Yellowthroat, hides in marshes and in dry brushy tangles. In either place it gives itself away with its witchity witchity witchity song.

(Recording of a Common Yellowthroat)

A warbler that looks a bit like a miniature oriole, the American Redstart, often hides in dense foliage. It has several different songs, but a few are easy to learn–one sounds like biz biz biz beezhew.

(Recording of an American Redstart)

This year’s partridge population is reaching a peak, and their drumming can be heard throughout the northwoods. This deep sound is produced by air rushing under a male’s wings as he beats them faster and faster, declaring his territory.

(Recording of a Ruffed Grouse)

One of the common sounds of sedge meadows is the Sedge Wren’s twang, sounding like someone plucking a rubber band. Most people don’t pay attention to the call, and never realize that the tiny, attractive bird even exists.

(Recording of a Sedge Wren)

This summer’s bird of the year is the Black-billed Cuckoo, distinguished because it actually eats tent caterpillars. But this secretive bird is very seldom seen, even when it’s fairly abundant. Its soft cucucu call isn’t easy to notice—it’s not piercing, and somehow doesn’t seem to penetrate most people’s consciousness.

(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo)

People often tell me that the very day that I talked about a particular bird species they see it for the first time. That’s at least partly because it’s easier for a bird to catch someone’s attention once they know it exists.

(Recording of a Great Crested Flycatcher)

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