What’s in a Birdsong?

Now is the time to really tune in to what birds are singing.

June is when the numbers of Yukon migratory species – the warblers, sparrows, ducks and shorebirds – peak.

Each morning, they create a rhapsody of songs focused on one prime (or should I say “primal”) objective – the desire to mate.

Pam Sinclair calls it something angelic: “The Dawn Chorus”.

The Environment Canada biologist has been helping people learn about birdsongs for about 10 years.

Her workshops started as a tune-up for researchers taking part in the North American Breeding Bird Survey that takes place every spring.

“It’s really how to learn birds’ songs,” is how she describes it.

There are a few basic facts. Every species sounds different, as do males and females, and sometimes the sounds are surprisingly different from the bird; for example, big song, tiny bird.

Northerners are lucky because migratory birds mainly sing here during mating season. Your friends down south just can’t enjoy them the way we do.

You don’t need special equipment to learn songs – just go out with binoculars and a bird guide. You’ll hear different sounds in different places.

Listening to birds helps you become aware of your environment.

For example, if you hear a boreal chickadee, you know you are in a pine or fir forest. Black-capped chickadees frequent bird feeders and more open areas. And species like the three-toed woodpecker are only found in pristine habitats such as old-growth forests.

One popular spot to listen to birds is the McIntyre Wetlands off Fish Lake Road. There’s a platform you can stand on, overlooking one marsh, and down the road there is another wetland, and still another if you veer down a wooded path.

Sinclair uses an array of words to describe the songs: buzzy, liquidy, sharp, intense, whistly.

Many guidebooks show the sonograms in a visual way, but Sinclair finds phrases that are easy to remember: “Oh, sweet Canada” (white-throated sparrow) or “Sweet, sweet, I am so sweet” (yellow warbler).

“It’s hard to describe sounds,”she admits. Just try to learn one or two species at a time.

The most-common warbler, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, has a three-part sound. Sinclair describes its pattern as “lazy” and quite variable.

The white-crowned sparrow, which has a prominent white-and-black-striped crown, sounds like it’s singing the Beatles song, I Once Had a Girl. It starts off “whistly” and ends up “buzzy”.

Visiting the wetlands with her and a group last week, she explained the high-pitched “boop” that we heard as the song of a male green-winged teal (duck).

“Ducks make some pretty weird noises, other than a quack.”

” A pixie sneezing” is how Sinclair describes a Hammond’s Flycatcher – a drab brown bird the size of a warbler.

One of the best ways to learn birdsongs is to try to get a visual on the bird you’re listening to and then look it up in your guidebook. There are also a number of birdsong books and websites.

Just Google the name of the bird or birdsongs to find a site.

“Sometimes the bird you remember most is the one you search to find, in the woods, for half an hour,” adds Sinclair.

Or go out with someone who knows more than you and just keep asking questions. The potential for learning is boundless.

So, are the songs really about love?

“It’s hard to say if it’s love or hate. Most of the songs are territorial in nature. The males sing when they are setting up a territory and looking for a mate.

“In effect, they’re kind of mad … Stay away, this is my place; I am looking (OK, for love).

“It’s a “hormone-induced ‘spring thing’,” setting up a territory and finding a mate.

Birdsongs signify life and perhaps that’s why we instinctively love hearing them.

Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang remembers the horror of the Second World War and the silence of its no man’s land.

And Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written in l962, warned about the lethal effects pesticides would have on our environment.

Like the canary in the coal mine, they remind us, in different ways, that a world that kills its birds is a world that can also kill us.

Well, hey, I am getting too serious. Time to get out there and listen for a “Beatles song” or maybe a pixie with a cold.

Jenny Trapnell is the field trip co-ordinator for the Yukon Bird Club. For information on trips, go to www.yukonweb.com/community/ybc/ or e-mail [email protected] to request a free notice of upcoming events.

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