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Hidden singing locations

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A pair of Eastern bluebirds in Michigan. Photo from Wikipedia.

Some birds sing from locations that are easily visible but many remain hidden from view. There are benefits for broadcasting their songs from undercover. 

Two primary functions for bird songs are territory establishment and mate attraction. At selected times during the day or for some species night, males travel a circuit near their territory border to “sing their hearts out.” The song is unique for each species and announces to other males to stay away. It is a vocal “No Trespassing” message. Territories vary in size from year to year depending on population size and abundance pressure. 

Males for most species arrive from migration before females to establish breeding territories. The first ones returning seek the best breeding habitat and generally are successful in defending it. They are challenged by other males and sometimes are driven out but that is not typically the case. Some males do not migrate as far south and this provides the opportunity to arrive at selected breeding sites earlier than other males. 

There is a disadvantage to not going to a more distant winter habitat that might have more suitable weather and food. If the winter is severe, individuals that stay farther north might not survive. Black-capped Chickadees are primarily permanent residents but there are southward invasion movements. The population appears to shift south from Canada. The ones at our winter feeders could be summer residents farther north. 

On a sunny February day, the rise in hormone levels circulating in blood generates a behavior change. We hear the chickadee’s two-note song from both easily viewed locations or hidden in thickets of winter shrubs and forests. The song has one higher whistle followed by a lower note. Typically we hear the chick-a-dee-dee-dee call all year. The call helps them keep track of each other and holds bands together when they are out of sight. Notice several chickadees travel together and often travel in association with other species. 

In March, we begin to hear another songster that repeats its high-pitched song that makes me think some beautiful voiced warbler has arrived too early. Instead it is a bird that is here all winter but generally stays out of sight. It is brown and well camouflaged. It flies to the base of a tree and spirals up the trunk looking for insects in hidden bark crevices. The Brown Creeper sings from hidden locations high in trees. When spring leaves expand, the male is more easily hidden from view but a female will be able to locate it with a little effort. 

Predators seeking hidden birds for a meal need to work hard to find them and the birds become silent when they see or sense danger. The hidden singing location enhances survival chances. Many of the beautiful warblers are unfamiliar to most of us because they stay out of sight when singing. Most of the 30 or so warblers nesting in Michigan’s lower peninsula are not easily seen but can be heard. Other warblers move through on migration to more northerly nesting locations and sing their way through the state giving pleasure to our ears. 

Some of the thrushes like American Robins announce a presence in view but are often hidden. We mostly see them tilting their heads as they listen and look for meals in our yards. Others like the Common Wood Thrush, Veery, and Hermit Thrush are harder to see but are easily heard singing from hidden forest locations. Eastern Bluebirds are more easily viewed because they nest and claim territories in more open areas from visible perches. The more brilliantly colored Indigo Bunting nests in shrublands and sings from high shrub or tree perches. Not all birds remain hidden when claiming territory or announcing locations to attract a mate. 

When we consider how many species thrive in our region, it is a relatively small number that are easily viewed singing. Enjoy the serenade that is most prevalent from late April to early July. I am not particularly good at bird song  recognition but take pleasure in the variety, pitch, volume, and vocal range of avian singers. I had excellent hearing but it has diminished with age. I still hear many. I know where to seek birds in their nature niches and now am mostly a birder by sight. It is more challenging so it is good go birding with others that can locate birds by sound. They help me locate singers in hidden locations that I could not find by sight alone.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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