We’ve reached the delightful time of year in Indiana when you can open your windows at night. The cool evening breeze induces a trance-like sleep.
Around 6am, as the ambient light replaces the darkness, the orchestra of songbirds becomes my morning alarm. The dawn chorus of birds doesn’t have a snooze button, so I rise and make my coffee.
I recognize a few familiar sounds, the chattering of Red-winged Blackbirds, squacks from Bluejays, and singing Robins. They have been active in my yard for the past month.
May brings many more songbirds to Indiana. Some are stopping for a rest as they migrate further north and others will stake-out a local territory to raise their young. Their sounds are a mix of songs and calls.
Early morning is too dark to search for food, but helps in hiding from larger predatory birds, so they sing. Most of the songs are produced by males, hoping a female will be wowed by their virtuoso. Other songs are a warning, “This territory is taken, stay out!” Either way, their song is an anthem, “I am a powerful creature, hear me roar.”
Calls are short, simple sounds. Birds use calls to warn of a threat or to keep in contact with their mates and young.
The range of notes produced by such small creatures is amazing. Their secret is a set of specialized vocal organs called syrinxes, not found in any other animal. Located where their windpipe branches into their lungs, sound is produced when air is exhaled through membranes of the syrinxes. The two syrinxes can operate independent of each other, allowing birds to make two different sounds at the same time.
Songbirds make up over half of the 10,000 species of birds in the world. They learn their songs from older, mentor birds. Much like young babies, they babble at first and then learn song patterns. Songbirds have several muscles controlling the vibrations of the syrinx, allowing them to create their beautiful compositions.
Most songbirds have multiple different calls and songs known as a repertoire. They can even have a slightly different dialect of song, like an accent, based on what part of the country they live. These facts make it difficult to identify and learn them all. Fortunately, a new tool is available to identify birds by sound as well as sight.
The Merlin Bird identification app from Cornell Ornithology can be downloaded for free to a phone or tablet. You can use the Bird Wizard questionnaire to identify birds you see. Or, you can use your camera and the app suggests a short list of matches based on your picture. With Merlin Bird ID, you can also use your device to record bird sounds. It offers suggestions in real time of which bird species is singing.
The thrushes, warblers, sparrows, and chickadees are some of my favorite artists. While more common, the songs of Cardinals, Robins, and Finches are also a pleasure to hear. Learning which birds are serenading my morning coffee time or evening strolls has added a new dimension to enjoying time outdoors. I hope it will for you too.
Julie Borgmann is the Executive Director of Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is preserving habitats where people and wildlife can thrive.