For the Birds Radio Program: Early Spring Songs

Original Air Date: March 27, 1989

Today Laura Erickson helps identify some of the common songs heard this time of year in the Northland.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Last week I got four telephone calls reporting that phoebes are back in town—that means it’s time to explain the differences between the song of the Black-capped Chickadee and the phoebe.

Chickadees can sing their song any time of year, but they seem to sing most at the end of winter. Just about everyone recognizes their chickadee-dee-dee call, but their song is quite different, plus it’s made usually from a treetop, so people don’t naturally connect it with a chickadee. It’s a pure whistle that follows the rhythm pattern “phoebe-bee”

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Even if you can’t quite capture the sweet quality of that whistle, if you whistle the right tune to a chickadee it will usually answer you. Most chickadees probably mate for life, and their song may help cement the pair bond, to some extent throughout the year, but especially as nesting season approaches.

Phoebes sing in a phoebe-bee rhythm pattern, too, but their voices are more raspy.

(Recording of an Eastern Phoebe)

Phoebes belong to the flycatcher family, and depend almost exclusively on flying insects for food. The earliest they’ve ever returned to northern Minnesota was March 28, and the vast majority don’t even consider coming back up here until at least mid-April, when the earliest aquatic insects are emerging from streams and ponds.

People are also wondering what all the little twittering sounds are coming from their spruce trees. Usually it’s Pine Siskins:

(Recording of Pine Siskins)

These tiny finches are very closely related to goldfinches, but they are dull brown streaky birds—some have lemon yellow in their wings, but even that is often obscured by darker feathers. And some people are finally hearing redpolls with their siskins.

(Recording of a Common Redpoll)

The sound quality of redpolls is a bit different from that of siskins, but because they are closely related, they both make the same “beee” note—you can also hear this note in goldfinches and pet canaries–other closely related species.

Now that crows are back in the Northland in full force, their caws are a familiar sound once again.

(Recording of an American Crow)

Most of the ravens have left towns and cities for wilder places by now, but country people can still hear them. Ravens don’t caw—they croak.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

Downy Woodpeckers are drumming now.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker drumming)

Hairy Woodpeckers have a very similar drum–it’s just a little slower. I tell them apart not by their drumming calls but by their voice. Hairy Woodpeckers have a sharp “pik” call.

(Recording of a Hairy Woodpecker call)

The “peek” call of downies is a bit lower in pitch.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker call)

People will soon be mistakenly reporting Chipping Sparrows, though they won’t be back until well into April. The bird that sings now in a dry trill is the Dark-eyed Junco.

(Recording of a Dark-eyed Junco)

One song people in the woods don’t hear as much as people in towns and cities is the chirping of the House Sparrow.

(Recording of a House Sparrow)

House Sparrows have been recorded breeding during every month of the year, though they only nest in the Northland during spring and summer. The ones that find a nice nesting crevice in a warm neon sign, street light, or energy-inefficient house are starting to nest now.

Even though there won’t be much noticeable migration for several weeks, there’s plenty to hear now right in your own backyard.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

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