I used to think that the wood thrush had the best song of all North American birds until I stood on a trail in north central Michigan this week surrounded by singing hermit thrushes. What a privilege to hear them!
If you’ve never experienced their ethereal song, don’t put off the experience for two decades as I did. Hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) nest on the ground in coniferous or mixed northern forests. As our climate warms their preferred habitat will be disappear from the eastern U.S. By 2050 their eastern breeding range will move north into Canada at Hudson Bay.
There’s a small brown bird at the feeder and there’s no one to help you identify it.
Don’t you wish you had a personal assistant to help you?
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin Bird ID app for Android and iPhone does just that. Introduced in 2014, the app gets smarter every year. It uses the simple information you already know — your location, the date and the words “small,” “brown,” and “at the bird feeder” — to narrow your choices and identify the bird.
You can even take a picture with your cellphone and ask Merlin what it is.
Merlin’s answer is a list of the most likely suspects with photos, sounds and descriptions. It even tells you if the bird is uncommon or rare for your date and location. That’s one of the best clues you’ll find anywhere because an “uncommon” species in March can become “common” in May.
The birds are singing again and our ears are “rusty” after six months of their silence. How can we identify them?
Here are YouTube videos for four species singing in my Pittsburgh neighborhood this morning. Perhaps they’re in your neighborhood, too.
Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) get back in tune very early in the year. They’re resident throughout much of North America so they begin practicing in January. By now they’re doing the territorial call-and-response in Pittsburgh. In the video above, you can hear a song sparrow off camera before the one in view responds.
Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are LOUD. Resident in the eastern U.S., their song is described as “TEAkettle, TEAkettle, TEAkettle” but it doesn’t always sound like that. Often the best clue to identifying this wren is that it’s the loudest voice you hear. Watch him sing below, then look for your local wren on a prominent perch. You’ll be surprised by how far away he is.
House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were originally from the western U.S. and Mexico but bird sellers illegally captured and sold them as “Hollywood Finches” in New York City. In 1940, with law enforcement in pursuit, the dealers released their birds in Central Park. Since then, the eastern population has expanded westward, nearly meeting up with their western relatives. You probably have one singing in your neighborhood. Listen to him below.
The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) “whoooing” song is sometimes mistaken for an owl but when you look for the source you’ll find this bird puffing his throat. Mourning doves are tuning up near you. They’re resident in most of the U.S. and Mexico.
(videos from YouTube. Click on the “Watch on YouTube” icon to see each video with explanatory text)
At Carara we’re likely to see white-headed capuchins (Cebus capucinus), shown above. These diurnal monkeys are highly intelligent and very social, living in troops of about 16 individuals that are mostly female kin because the males move around. White-headed capuchins love to use tools and are so smart that they can be trained in captivity to assist paraplegics.
If we hear an otherworldly roar like a dinosaur, it’ll be a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata). The howlers roar both day and night but can be hard to find.
Now scientists at Deakin University in Australia have discovered that in zebra finches what the eggs hear and how they respond is even more amazing than we knew.
In the last days of incubation, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) sing a special song to their eggs but only when it’s hot outside — greater than 26 degrees C (78.8 degrees F).
The eggs hear the song and it changes their lives.
After they hatch, babies who heard the “hot call” grow more slowly than those who didn’t. Not only are the “hot call” babies smaller as adults but they’re more successful breeders in a hot climate. Surprisingly, this effect extends into later generations.
Small bodies cope better with heat than large ones, so signalling for a smaller size is a great adaptation for a warming climate.
But how does the zebra finch song bring about this result?
Click here to watch the video and read about this amazing feat.
(screenshot from Science Magazine video about zebra finch vocalization. Click on the screenshot to see the video)