Friday, January 27, 2012

Living in a Bird House

A common wintertime sight from my office window.
Relocating to Atlanta, Georgia, I never imagined that I was moving to a place where I would routinely be awakened by birdsongs and calls.  While Atlanta is certainly urban it is also filled with mature trees, especially in old neighborhoods like mine.  My bedroom and office are on the second floor, which brings me closer to the tree canopy and to the birds and their many activities.

In fall and winter, I enjoy the luxury of leaving the door to the sleeping porch open at night.  My ideal sleeping conditions are fresh air, a cool head, and nest of warmth beneath a thick down comforter.  From this pinnacle of coziness, I have woken in the night to sounds of barred owls calling to one another.  Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?  And then the female’s response ending with an extended, gurgling vibrato you-allllllllll.  There is at least one very active pair in my neighborhood, and I have heard them during evening walks calling to one another as they move from tree to tree.  I’ve even seen them in flight, one following closely behind the other.  Sometimes I don’t even need an open window to hear the owls call, but when I do, I generally stop what I am doing and step outside to listen and maybe catch a glimpse of this affectionate pair.

In the springtime, there is no sleeping in.  One morning I woke up laughing because of the sheer cacophony of bird noises.  Here’s a list of the birds I am pretty sure I heard:
Cardinals: Very insistent, somewhat mechanical and certainly repetitive tik.  They have other songs, but they love this one.
Robins have a rich, fruity voice to my ear.  Very dignified.  But in the mornings they seem moved to a truly hilarious chortle. 
Phoebes position themselves on the peaks of our roof and call out their own names, FEE-bee, FEE-b-be-be.  Just beneath them, under the eaves, are the beams on which they build their nests.  In fact, although it’s winter I can see a mud and stick nest above my office window.  Phoebe’s reuse their nests, and come spring there will be a tail of the nesting mother sticking out from the nest, followed by the rasping noises of the babies when the harried parents approach with that moment’s meal.
Carolina Wrens:  Fussy, territorial and exceptionally LOUD.  That such decibels come out of this tiny bird is truly miraculous.  If you were trapped in a room with a Carolina wren, I imagine you would emerge with a severe headache and measurable hearing loss.  The wren’s songs are ubiquitous in my neighborhood: TEA-KETTLE! TEA-KETTLE! TEA-KETTLE!  And CHO-WE! CHO-WE CHO-WE!  Or, when feeling especially extravagant, the three syllable LIB-ER-TY! LIB-ER-TY! LIB-ER-TY!  Always in all-caps with exclamation points. 
More birds than this were surely involved in that morning’s riot, and I look forward to identifying more of my early-morning songsters this coming spring.
For now, I am enjoying the enormous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that visit the neighborhood.  Agelaius phoeniceus is the species' scientific name, Aeglaius being a Greek word meaning "flocking." They swoop in, black as holes torn in the sky, and bring with them their screechy chatter.  Suddenly its as if I live beneath an enormous swing set, making the sound of a thousand rusty swings. Sometimes I can catch a glimpse of a male's red and gold shoulder patch. 
Lots of birds around here flock in the winter, for the safety of a crowd and improved chances of finding food.  Robins do the same thing, and songbirds make up mixed flocks of chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches and titmice.[i]  They forage together and look out for predators, the latter being of no small consideration.  I’ve already mentioned owls, but lots other raptors live in the neighborhood: I have seen sharp shined hawks and red-tailed hawks, often with fresh-caught meals in their talons.  Jays and crows are also dangerous to small birds.  Peregrine falcons are said to nest in downtown Atlanta.  Really, it’s no surprise that the local sports teams are named after birds: the Hawks, the Falcons, and (until last year) the Thrashers are all hometown teams. 
The one birdsong I cannot abide is that of the Mourning Dove.  And lately a dove has been sitting in a tree near the house cooing its mournful oh-woe-woe-woe.  This doleful repetition depresses and enrages me.  I want to throw a boot at the bird and shout, For God’s sake, go away! Or I WILL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!  And should the day come that I unleash this outburst, the Carolina Wren will have nothing on me.

Kroodsma, Donald.  The Backyard Birdsong Guide (Eastern and Central North America).  Bellevue, Washington: Becker&mayer, 2008.

Parrish, John, et al.  Birds of Georgia. Auburn, Washington: Lone Pine Publishing, 2006.

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