Bird Calls and Songs

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(Host) Bird watching with kids poses some challenges, but commentator Ted Levin has found a very effective teaching aid.

(Levin) My youngest boys have portable diskette players designed to help them learn to identify birds by their sound. The diskettes include a number of icons: common loon, American bittern, woodcock, whip-poor-will, as well as a variety of hawks and owls and shorebirds. The diskettes are filled with both bird calls and bird songs.

Calls are usually short and fairly simple, while most songs are comparatively long and involved. True songbirds are members of the suborder Oscines of the order Passeriformes, the perching birds. True songbirds have voice boxes with eight to nine pairs of syingeal muscles, allowing for some very complicated singing. Most of the other bird species have only one or two pairs. Remarkably, songbirds also have the ability to sing through both bronchial tubes, either simultaneously or separately. Thrushes, like the veery and the hermit thrush, sing two distinct themes at the same time, which yields their hauntingly beautiful songs.

The boys play the diskettes without regard to time of day, like love-struck mockingbirds crooning in the moonlight; upstairs, downstairs and in the van. I can hone in on their location in the aisles of the Hanover Co-op, by following the wildly out-of-context bird voices. I am constantly quizzed on voice, geography, and habitat.

A brown thrasher lives at the mouth of Five Corners Road, where the road connects with Route 113. I often see the bird as it flits across the road from one shrub patch to the next, rich red-brown, streak bellied, and long tailed. In my corner of Vermont thrashers are rare, so every time I see it I get excited.

Recently, the boys and I searched for the thrasher. Armed with a portable recorder and the diskette called “Forest Edge,” which included the thrasher’s song – a seemingly random arrangement of paired notes – we wandered along the lower end of Five Corners Road. Holding the recorder high overhead, playing the thrasher’s song, the boys squeezed through tangles of honeysuckle, grapevines, and saplings. Like a latter day Boone and Crockett, they were single-minded in hot pursuit. When a voice echoed the paired notes of the diskette, the boys were exuberant. Eventually, the thrasher was spotted high in a sugar maple, silhouetted against the morning sun.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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