Now is the best time of the year to walk in the woods and listen.
In my last column, I wrote about how to learn the song of birds – methods that make it easier to recognize different species of birds by ear. This week, I want to talk about why you need to learn to sing birds, how this kind of knowledge can enrich your daily life. Nothing makes it simpler than a spring walk in the woods.
I recently went for a good long hike at the Indian Tree Open Space Reserve in Novato, an unfamiliar nature reserve that runs between a broad-leaved forest and a coniferous forest. From the moment I reached the top of the path, the birds were singing: white-crowned sparrows from a black lamp, a purple fin from the top of a tree, a stick of orange crown that had just come from somewhere in the woods.
The first advantage of listening to birds with a small amount of knowledge is that you have extensive awareness of the existence of live and wild animals around you. We got out of the car and before we looked at anything, we knew that there were three different birds near us.
We entered the forest and more noises joined the sound scene. From the now-faded courtyard, the goldsmiths sang their long, noisy songs at the entrance, which were scattered with imitations. Junkos sent his counterpart thrillers down from the tops of the trees, while the hot tubs sang their powerful “rubber bands” out of pieces of coyote bushes. The mourning dove made a mournful noise somewhere far away and declared its inseparable status. All of these are year-round birds, but none are unlikely to sing such a song in November. The song is a feature of the nest season.
This is the second benefit of listening to a song; it gives you a clear sense of the seasons, the great examples of life that we often separate from our natural cycles with their relative separation. April is not just a calendar page. It is a time full of life and it is nowhere brighter than the song of birds. Animals usually want to hide from us for reasonable reasons. But the whole point of the bird song is to advertise yourself either for a potential mate or a neighborhood neighbor. This is a specific time of year when the birds want to be noticed and we take advantage of this lack of seasonal shyness.
On this early morning walk, it seemed as if every minute there was a crowned orange ribbon, a trillion song similar to a Yuncos song, but usually halfway down. When we entered another part of the forest, which was a little shady and humid, it seemed as if on Wilson’s forests, bright yellow birds with black caps were happening. The songs start to look hesitant, a little quieter and slower, but they speed up and then suddenly shut down, all within two seconds.
The song shows another seasonal behavior here: birds leave in the nesting space in the spring, which protects them from neighbors. Meanwhile, the peculiarities of these two songs, which suddenly spread everywhere, reveal an always strange phenomenon of migration: these birds were not here in February. It’s a typical poultry update that says, “I heard my first orange crown yesterday” – it’s our ears that first tell us what’s going on.
We continued to climb and recorded more sounds than the scenery, without all the leaves and branches in the middle limiting our eyes. Hearing is similar to X-ray vision and there are no obstructions. The purple finch sang, was immediately heard, and was then hunted with strained necks and binoculars for a second. The Hutton vulture – often one of the most easily overlooked birds of the oak forest, small and very colorful – sang and sang and sang until we, the unforgettable people, were able to spot the endless singular song. And the brown reptile, a bird whose completely masked existence is unimaginable to most people, cast a loud melody and sweet magic invisibly from the trees.
Listening to birds has many lessons: you can learn about nesting, migration, terrain, and how birds live. But the first and greatest gift is this: the world is full of life that we can only see with the naked eye.
Jack Gedney runs on wings every Monday. He is a partner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and the author of the upcoming book The Private Life of Public Birds. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.