A robin sang from a branch near the top of a maple tree in our yard, a house wren sang from a lower branch of another maple nearby. A song sparrow sang from an oak. It was early morning. The sun was up, just above the horizon and I stood on the back step of our house, listening to the morning chorus of the birds.
The sounds were singing to me but it was more than that to the birds. The robin singing, the house wren, the song sparrow were males and they were announcing to other males of their kind, over and over, this is my territory, keep out. It was an announcement too, to mates, females, on nests within those territories, telling their mates I’m on guard, I’m protecting you from intruders.
A chipping sparrow sang. Or called, a rapid chipping, sounding more like an insect, not at all musical. Yet that’s his song and it has the same message as the songs of the robin, the house wren and the song sparrow.
Out in the cattails of the marsh at the edge of our pasture red-winged blackbirds sang. I heard a common yellowthroat call, a vocalization described in bird books as witchity-witchety-witchety. I heard a least flycatcher, the least musical song I heard that morning, che-bek che-bek che-bek.
A bird’s song, or call, is a message to other birds of the same species of territory, a call to attract a mate and later reassurance to a mate. Birds have other vocalizations as well. Most people have heard the shrill calls of robins when an intruder, them or some other person or a cat or other animal, is near a robin’s nest or a fledgling.
I have seen screech owls when I was alerted to their presence by a screaming flock of robins. As a boy when I went walking in the woods and heard a flock of crows making a loud commotion I hurried toward the sound of their calling, hoping, expecting to see them mobbing a great horned owl. More often than not a great horned owl was the cause of their alarm and I would not have seen it if it hadn’t been for the calling of the crows.
Birds speak to us, too, in a way. They identify themselves. I recognized the robin, the house wren and the song sparrow by their songs before I ever saw them. I recognized the chipping sparrow and the red-winged blackbirds by their calls before I saw them. I didn’t see the common yellowthroat or the least flycatcher but they told me of their presence by their calls.
Leaving the step, going out behind the barn, I heard and saw barn swallows. In a tree near the barn I heard, then spotted a Baltimore oriole in the leaves near the top of the tree. I heard, but again did not see, a warbling vireo among the leaves.
It is said that the experienced birder spots many birds by the songs or calls. He or she hears them, then looks for them and finds them when they move, often when they fly. That’s the way I usually spot sandhill cranes. I hear one or more calling, look to the sky in the direction of the calls and find them, often so high, appearing so small I would never have seen them if I hadn’t heard them first.
I met a couple once who only listened for birds. At least, he only listened. I met them on a path in a woods. The lady said good morning, then asked if I was a bird watcher. Then she asked what birds I’d heard. Strange question, I thought, but then she explained. Her husband was blind. They counted only birds he identified, with her help. They were bird listeners, she said.