I’m walking with the dog shortly before sunrise one spring morning, heading down the riparian path. It’s a peaceful time for us humans and canines. But once I shift my awareness, I can hear the air crackling with communications. “Chup-ZEEEEE (Spotted Towhee). TEEKTEEKTEEK eek-eek-eek-eek-eek-eek (California Towhee). WITCHity-WITCHity-WITCHity (Common Yellowthroat) oo-AH-ooooo-oo-oo (Mourning Dove). Sis-SEE sit-SEEW sis-SEE sit-SEEW (Black Phoebe). Male songbirds of all species sing as if their lives depend on it. And, in a way, they do.
An hour or so before sunrise this time of year, this dawn chorus begins. But what are these songsters trying to convey? Some are announcing that they made it through the night. (“Hey, neighbors. I’m still here. Don’t try anything.”) Some hope to entice a female who might have arrived overnight. (“Hey, baby—new here? Check out this great piece of land I’ve staked out.”) Regardless of the message, singing is a key part of the avian breeding season. If you are lucky enough to have American Robins in your area (CheeriLEE-cheerio cheeriLEE-cheerio), they’ll likely be your first singers of the day. (Remember the adage “The early bird catches the worm?” That early bird of yore was, indeed, a robin.) In my neighborhood, though, Song Sparrows lead off the chorus. Other species chime in as the light increases. By mid-morning, the musical frenzy wanes considerably, although some species sing throughout the day. Another, less intense round of singing kicks off as the sun begins to set. At our house, Mourning Doves and Spotted Towhees typically broadcast the last songs of the day.
We humans use a larynx to produce sound. A bird, though, has a syrinx—a much more complex structure with multiple pairs of tiny muscles independently controlling two membranes. These dual membranes actually allow a bird to sing two notes simultaneously. In fact, one of the loveliest songs in the West is the Swainson’s Thrush’s ascending, double-noted duet with himself. The syrinx also lets a bird make sounds unlike anything a human can produce. When I first started learning to identify birds by song, I marveled at the odd concoctions some folks used to try to capture the songs. CheeriLEE-cheerio cheeriLEE-cheerio? No self-respecting American Robin would recognize that rendition. Sis-SEE sit-SEEW sis-SEE sit-SEEW? Are you kidding me? A pretty far cry from what that Black Phoebe really sounds like. Perhaps the award for the most bizarre mnemonic goes to the Song Sparrow: MAIDS, MAIDS, MAIDS put on your TEA-kettle-ettle-ettle. Seriously, now, people…But these representations do reflect the rhythm and accents of a song and can help to link the song to the singer—for the Song Sparrow, several longer introductory notes followed by a jumble of notes. Some songs, though, just defy meager human representation. The rich warbling lilt of a Black-headed Grosbeak, sounding rather like an American Robin that has taken voice lessons. The downward tumbling whistles of a Canyon Wren, ricocheting off high rock walls. The inimitable but unmistakable bubbling, gurgling notes of a Western Meadowlark floating across a field.
As breeding season progresses, the singing begins to diminish while the parents hustle all day to find food for the begging youngsters. Here in North County, the skies start to quiet down in mid-July. Birds continue to vocalize after that but typically use simpler call notes that help keep in contact with others around them rather than defend territories or attract mates. But while spring and summer are the most tune-filled seasons, birds sing at other times too. In the fall you might hear a brief upsurge in songs. During this fall recrudescence, the sun shines at an angle similar to that found in early spring—and some birds think it’s time to crank up breeding activities again. Also at this time, the young that hatched in the summer try out their songs for the first time, sometimes with comical variations before they get it just right. A few species—most notably for my neighborhood, the year-round resident Song Sparrow and the winter visitor White-crowned Sparrow—actually sing much of the winter. These lovely songs slicing through the air offer a reminder that spring will come, even when we’re locked into a sometimes bleak, yet deeply appreciated, rainy mid-winter day. By the end of January, other resident birds begin to warm up their voices for the spring concert as well; migrants join the chorus as they arrive.
As the seasons rotate between the northern and southern hemispheres, at any time somewhere on the planet, birds are singing. This time of year, the avian symphony around us provides glorious “ear candy” from sunrise to sunset. All you have to do is kick back, close your eyes, open your ears, and let the music pour into your soul.