For the Birds Radio Program: Sounds of Spring Migration

Original Air Date: April 8, 1991

Laura talks about the early migrants arriving now, and what they sound like.

(The filed transcript has modifications used in a later version of this program.)

Audio missing


For a birdwatcher, this is the most hopeful and cheerful season of the year. Just about every day brings pleasures—some expected, like the return of gulls and juncoes; some unexpected, like an intimate glimpse into the romantic lives of the neighborhood crows. Ducks are starting to appear on area lakes, and eagles are soaring above us. The first bluebirds, robins, and phoebes are back, and grackles and redwings are stirring up the usual ruckus in their old marshy haunts. Chickadees break into occasional squabbles as the winter flocks break up into breeding pairs. Juncoes and Mourning Doves pick at the spilled seed beneath feeders, with an occasional migrating hawk disturbing their meal momentarily.

This is the time of year when I am most surprised to see joggers wearing headphones out on their morning runs. The natural songs that can be heard outside now may be oldies but they’re certainly goldies. A Mourning Dove’s plaintive notes have the power to stir our hearts as much in 1991 as they did the hearts of native people thousands of years ago.

The sharp little notes and sweet trills of juncoes sound as busy and filled with purpose as the earth itself, stirring with new growth.

Country people are refreshing their memories, learning to distinguish between the phoebe and the chickadee once again. Phoebes are the ones with the harsh Phoebe, Phoebe-be. The breeding song of the Black-capped Chickadee is a sweet, whistled Hey, Sweetie!

Once again, Ring-billed Gulls are collecting in the parking lot at Duluth’s Target store. Geese are flying overhead now. Red-winged Blackbirds clinging to last year’s dead cattails are singing their Okalee! song to claim their territories while displaying their epaulets, such a strikingly vivid red against the browns and grays of the sleeping marsh. Killdeers are also calling in pastures and marshes again.

Lucky people are already hearing the sweet notes of bluebirds, though it isn’t too late to set out bluebird boxes and still attract them.

Of course, the most familiar sight of spring is the robin. Robins tend to follow the 38-degree isotherm north in March and April. Most years they don’t return to the northern reaches of our listening area until April, but this year a large migration took place in the middle of March. The first robins to return are always mature males–they’re easy to tell by their black heads and prominently streaked throats. Females come back a couple of weeks later, after the males have established their territories. This saves wear and tear on the females, who will deplete their reserves soon enough with egg production.

Early spring weather is changeable and sometimes unpleasant, but it’s a short time before flying insects bring back swallows and flycatchers, and leafing out trees and their attendant caterpillars lure warblers, vireos, orioles, and other late migrants. By then there’ll be so much song in the woods that it’ll be harder to pick out individual songs—so enjoy the hardy early birds fully while you can.