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Bird Talk

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

I hadn’t seen a Winter Wren in a few years. Two primary reasons are I am not exploring wild areas as often and secondly my hearing has declined. I do not hear their beautiful song unless they are singing close to me. 

Its song is one of my favorites with a long and vibrant warble. They reside in wetland thickets and nest mostly north of here. House Wrens are more familiar and are found at yard edge thickets. They occupy houses erected for bluebirds. Wrens hold their tails up making identification easier. All wrens species have melodious songs.

It is a special joy to encounter a bird I haven’t seen for a considerable time. As a casual birder, I do not see birds observed by avid bird watchers. Again, there are two primary reasons for me seeing fewer species. First is my casual effort and secondly, I seldom speak “bird talk.” What I mean by “bird talk” is that I do not regularly use bird song or call recordings to bring them into close view. 

Many birders competently identify them by recognizing songs and calls. I can recognize several, but most are a mystery to my ears. Unlike avid birders that can identify calls or songs, I do not. To list sightings, I usually require visual confirmation. 

Various Empidonax flycatcher species cannot be easily separated by appearance and require song or call identification. It is difficult for me to distinguish calls and drumming of Pileated Woodpeckers from Northern Flickers so I must see them. The calls of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are similar and confuse me. 

A solution that helps determine species is to play bird song or call recordings (bird talk). They will frequently come to see who from their species is talking in the area. The recording changes the bird’s normal behavior by stopping current activity to investigate. If the bird is feeding, it distracts it from eating. Many birds have protected spring breeding territories and guard feeding areas in winter. When they hear one of their own species in their territory, they come to chase it away. That takes energy and is stressful. 

For comparison, think of it like nuisance phone recordings we each receive daily. Today, I got four unwanted recorded calls. Yesterday three of seven were disturbances. Two came while I was napping. I do not want to turn the ringer off because I want desired calls. Four of the calls were from people I wanted to speak with. When awakened, I have difficulty getting back to sleep. My illness makes it difficult to sleep at night and it stresses me to be awakened by unwanted calls during daytime naps. Birds nap or rest midday and if a recording is played, they wake to investigate. When engaged in other activities, it interferes with normal behavior.

Playing calls in a bird’s territory might be a minor disturbance when it rarely occurs. At Ody Brook, we use tapes infrequently with friends to bring a bird into view or to confirm identification. That is fine because it only happens a few times a year and only once or twice for a given species.

Recently, at a popular birding location visited by many birders, a Winter Wren was reported. Because I have not seen one for a few years, my friend played the tape, and the bird quickly came into view. Since many people want to see this gorgeous and infrequently seen bird, they call it with “bird talk.” The result is like the excessive nuisance phone calls I receive. It is not in the bird’s best interest because of its frequency. It benefits us but can negatively impact bird survival by consuming fat energy reserves and exposing them to predators.

Another method for calling birds is to “pish.” That means making sound by blowing out through closed lips on the back of the hand or saying psst, psst, psst repeatedly. Many birds are intrigued and come to see what the noise is about. In places where it occurs infrequently, it is probably not a problem. In locations like bird sanctuaries, national parks, and local birding “hot spots,” the sound can cause undue stress when it happens often. I use both recorded calls and pishing, but I am selective for where and how often they are used. Limited use demonstrates respect for bird health and wellbeing. I encourage people to put bird welfare equal to their own. That is good birding ethics.

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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