Bird Brains

Don’t call anyone a bird brain unless you are complimenting them. In the last couple decades, researchers worldwide have been discovering how amazing bird brains are. That should not be a surprise since feathered winged animals that fly have been evolving on earth for more than 150 million years, according to recent genetic analyses.

Neuroscientists Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Pavel Nemec recently published a paper entitled “Birds have Primate-like Numbers of Neurons in the Forebrain,” in which they write that the brains of birds are organized much like those of primates.

“We found that birds, especially songbirds and parrots, have surprisingly large neurons in their pallium: the part of the brain that corresponds to [our] cerebral cortex, which supports higher cognition functions such as planning for the future or finding patterns.”

To truly understand how intelligent birds are, researchers study how a species behaves in the wild, conduct experiments with captive birds, and compare what they see in the field with what they learn in the lab about a species’ genes and cells.

Some bird species seem to learn as little as possible to get along. Others are bird Einsteins. Most are in between. But relatively few of the more than 9000 species of birds worldwide have been studied in detail. And in much of the last century, even though people had been reporting anecdotally what appeared to be the intelligent actions of some birds such as crows and ravens, scientists had not begun any systematic studies of birds’ brains.

An American crow on a fence post

An American crow on a fence post (Photo by Joe McKenna on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While some of us have watched parrots dance to music and New Caledonian crows solve problems on You Tube, many of our common birds are just as clever. American crows, for example, are adept at problem-solving. One researcher observed an American crow carrying water in a Frisbee to dampen its dried mash and another one using the end of a plastic slinky toy to scratch its head while it was perching.

According to research by John Marzluff in Washington State, American crows can recognize human faces, using the same parts of their brains to do this as we do. They plan ahead when they find and then leave a gift for a human who has been feeding them. In addition, they will delay gratification if they think they will be offered something better (usually food) at a later time.

Common ravens are socially adept, remembering other ravens they were friendly with before they paired for life, recalling those special friends even after they have been separated for three years.

A blue jay with an acorn

A blue jay with an acorn (Photo by Jeff Hart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still another member of the Corvid family, our blue jays, can accurately select fertile acorns 88% of the time and can count to five. They also mimic red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. Blue jays often mimic the latter on our mountain and fool us. Some scientists hypothesize that they do this to trick other blue jays into thinking that there’s a raptor in the area and they need to leave, giving the blue jay imitating the red-tail time to harvest acorns without competition.

Another scientist noticed that a blue jay was smart enough to rub red ants on its body to get rid of the ants’ formic acid before eating them.

Because more than 80% of bird species are socially monogamous, staying with one partner for a season or even, in some cases, for life, they have developed “relationship intelligence,” which is an ability to understand what their partners want or need and respond in order to successfully breed and raise their young.

But apparently 90% of both sexes also sneak off to copulate with others without getting caught by their partners. This results in more healthy offspring.

In autumn, birds that store food for the winter, such as black-capped chickadees, grow new cells in their brain center (the hippocampus) which deals with spatial memory. This allows them to remember where they hid seeds months later.

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park, near Hanover, Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Brood parasites such as brown-headed cowbirds, especially the females, have large hippocampuses, because they are the ones that must lay their eggs in other species’ nests. They must find, remember, and revisit the nests they parasitize.

And invasive bird species, such as house sparrows and European starlings, have larger brains, are innovative, and have more flexible behavior because they must adapt to a foreign environment.

But our brainiest birds may be hummingbirds, because their brain is the largest brain relative to its size, a whopping 4.2% of their total body weight. Their hippocampus is five times larger than that of songbirds, seabirds and woodpeckers. They can remember every flower in their territory and how long it takes them to refill with nectar after they feed from them.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder (Photo by likeaduck on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

From year to year at home and in migration they also remember where every feeder is. They even learn which feeder people are responsible or irresponsible and have huge episodic memories that allow them to plan when and where to feed on hundreds of flowers a day.

The females watch older females making nests to learn how to do this because female hummers are on their own once they have bred. They must build their nests, brood their eggs, and feed their young alone.

Hummingbirds have the ability to move backwards, forwards, and sideways because they have more complex brains. In the part of their brain that responds to visual stimuli, instead of the usual back-to-front preference most animals and humans have, hummingbirds have no preference and can move in any direction.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower (Photo by chrisdupe on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During their mating flights, which we’ve watched with awe from our front porch, they make instantaneous course corrections much faster than a fighter jet. Thus, their brains can move efficiently in three dimensions, which some scientists believe makes their tiny brains the most complicated of any vertebrate species.

Hummingbirds have not been considered songbirds, but biologists Claudio Mello and Erich Jarvis have found that hummingbirds have the same areas in their brains that control song learning and production as songbirds and parrots. They do sing in a higher pitch than songbirds, but their songs are amazingly rich, and in some species, complex.

Neurobiologists have been comparing birdsong with human speech and language. Like human children, young birds listen to other birds of their species to learn songs. They imitate and practice, seemingly using the same brain structures and genes to learn songs as children use to learn language. Some birds even stutter.

There is incredible variety in birdsong, as various as the 4,000 songbirds on our planet. And if you listen as carefully as Donald Kroodsma, who has been studying birdsong, especially in the eastern United States, for more than 40 years, you might be able to hear the 30 to 40 songs of a Carolina wren, the 50 to 100 of an eastern bluebird, the song and mimicking calls of a white-eyed vireo, the 30 to 40 songs of the ethereal wood thrush, the 200 to 400 different mimicking songs and calls of a gray catbird, the 100 songs of a northern mockingbird, and the 2,000 of the mimic champion—the brown thrasher.

Then there is the hermit thrush whose song has been compared to human musical scales with trills and slides reminiscent of a woodwind instrument. Some ornithologists have claimed that hermit thrushes sing major, minor and pentatonic (five note) scales.

But composer Emily Doolittle and biologist Tecumseh Fitch didn’t believe it. Still, using recordings of 14 hermit thrushes from the Borror Laboratory at Ohio State University, they started analyzing the pitches of 114 song types. When they slowed them down, they could hear their harmonies.

A hermit thrush singing

A hermit thrush singing (Photo by Yankech gary on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

“They jumped out at us,” Doolittle said, adding that 70% of the hermit thrushes’ songs were harmonic.

And maybe most miraculous of all to us are our songbirds that migrate. Scientists have found that at first they rely on genetic information for both direction and distance until they gain experience. Then they use their own brain maps to find their way. They build up magnetic maps during migration and some may use odor to help guide them. Some researchers even think they may hear a landscape infrasonically, especially the ocean, to help navigate. But to do all that and more they must possess fantastic spatial memories.

Every day, it seems, more is being revealed about the brains of birds. It’s a hot topic. For instance, researchers have recently found that the bird that is closest to its dinosaur ancestors is our own wild turkey. That’s because, since the days of feathered dinosaurs, the wild turkey’s chromosomes have had fewer changes than those of other birds. And, as any hunter knows, wild turkeys are wily and smart.


May Journal Highlights

May Day Musings

May 1. 47 degrees at dawn and overcast with a shower before breakfast. Three deer foraged in the flat area and did not flee when I set out the bird feeder.

Halfway along Black Gum Trail, the first ovenbirds finally sang. Our springs are later and later; England’s are earlier and earlier–three weeks earlier, according to British ecologists who spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition. And the second news item (after Bush’s repeat threat to veto time-tables to get out of Iraq in an Iraq War spending bill): scientists have announced that the Arctic is melting three times faster than their computer models predicted. It’s obvious to me which news item is the most important in the long run but not to short-sighted humans, especially politicians. People will go on killing each other over minor issues and, in fact, wars large and small will increase as resources dwindle. On Marketplace they reported that folks in England are so upset over the scarcity of wood, due to unprecedented demand from China, that fist fights have broken out at garden centers over the few fencing materials available.

Yet I sit in our well-watered forest, listening to the birds and chipmunks as a glimmer of sun breaks through the clouds, and feel the utter peace and contentment of my charmed life. To get here, I’ve donned mostly old clothes except for my new boots, made of extra-soft kangaroo leather to pamper my arthritic feet, and assembled in China by an American-owned company. My socks, however, which are also extra thick and soft, were made in Iowa of merino wool by a small company called Fox River. I’ve burned no fossil fuel to get here. Still, my life, like everyone else’s, is built on compromises–fossil fuel to heat our home and run our machines, buying local food as much as possible to keep large refrigerator trucks off the road and support our local economy, buying a more gas efficient car but still driving, air-drying clothes as much as possible but using an electric clothes washer, etc.

The Waterthrush Bench Louisiana waterthrush is definitely back and sings loudly over and over as I past by.

A single rue anemone flowers in the dark place where the hepaticas grow and where a few still bloom.

The first tiger swallowtail of the year comes floating off Sapsucker Ridge toward me.

Return of the Last Neotropical Migrants

May 2. The Baltimore oriole greeted me at 6:30 this morning. Then Dave came in and had me listen to a strange song outside. It was a blue-winged warbler, but try as I might I could not see the elusive singer, unlike the oriole who didn’t mind being seen at all. Still, the blue-winged warbler’s “song” is unmistakeable.

At 7:00 I stepped outside to listen again. This time it was a brown thrasher singing from the top of a yard tree. He wasn’t difficult to see either. Dave says one has been back since early April, but that was the first I’ve heard or seen one. But then I’m not out on my back porch drinking coffee at the crack of dawn every day as Dave is.

As I pulled on my boots at 8:45–zoom–past me. It could only be a ruby-throated hummingbird, and indeed it was. He perched briefly on a sapling and then flew over to sup on the Virginia bluebells as if he remembered them from other years. What a hummingbird magnet those flowers are. And luckily the deer don’t like them.

Descending the hill on Laurel Ridge Trail, I heard a singing hooded warbler who hushed, along with the ovenbirds, when a sharpie flew overhead and then slowly circled above.

Coming toward the spruce grove, I heard a singing scarlet tanager on Sapsucker Ridge. Dave had heard a “chit-bang” yesterday but no song.

As I sat on Alan’s Bench, sharpies, hidden in the dense spruces, made their usual polite protests on both sides of me.

As the sun shone more brightly, a wood thrush sang below in the woods.

At the edge of the Far Field, golden black birch catkins shimmered in the sunlight as I listened to a chorus of birds–white-throated sparrows, field sparrows, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers. A sapsucker tended his wells. I saw at least one yellow-rumped warbler and heard a singing ruby-crowned kinglet. A black-throated green warbler groomed himself on a cherry tree branch and then sang. I also heard the buzz of a worm-eating warbler and the melodious wood thrush. A small flock of white-throats foraged among the ice-toppled trees. Common yellowthroats sang and a pair of flickers called. Least flycatchers also sang and I saw my first American redstart finally. I heard and then saw, high in a tree, a singing rose-breasted grosbeak. If only the warblers were as easy to see as the grosbreaks!

As I crossed the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I encountered a huge, fresh bear scat, which is evidence that at least one bear roams the mountain. But I haven’t seen one in such a long time and this is the year our mother bears, if they are still alive, should be having cubs.

Later, while I finished the dinner dishes, Bruce sat out on the veranda reading, but he looked up in time to see a great blue heron perched in the black walnut tree. Then it flew off toward the Little Juniata River.

May 3. As we walked out to the car at 8:15 to drive to State College, we were serenaded by a newly arrived catbird singing in the ailing blac walnut tree overlooking the forsythia where the catbirds nest every year.

Back home shortly after 3:00 and I was out before 4:00, heading for the deer exclosure. Mayapples are still only singles, which means still no blossoms after seven years. How long does it take for a colony to bloom? On the other hand, Solomon’s seals are huge and dangle blossoms beneath their leaves as still more germinate every year. Large beds of purple violets bloomed also.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, towhees, blue-headed vreos, and black-throated green warblers sang and called, and chipmunks and gray squirrels scampered about their businesses.

I moved on up to my favorite white oak tree, accompanied by the scolding of a wood thrush. But when I sat down, he serenaded me for many holy minutes, even while a robin briefly tried to compete. He interrupted his singing to poke about in the ground detritus, but then he turned toward me and more music flowed from his beak, as if he were directing his songs at me. He was brightly spotted on his white breast, a truly handsome bird. I’ve never seen one singing on the forest floor as he moves about. It was almost as if he was performing a concert just for me.

May 7. My back went out on the morning of May 4, and I’ve been housebound ever since. The days have been cool, clear, and beautiful as the trees slowly leaf out. Wood thrushes sing at dawn and dusk, the flickers have definitely taken over the black walnut tree nest hole, and white-throated sparrows still remain and sing this incredibly late spring. I have so little time left to enjoy it and I feel depressed that of all months–May, my favorite one–my back gives out on me. Still, I sit outside on the white plastic chair in the sunlight as much as I can.

Virginia bluebells have spread and are at their height as they spill down the slope. What an inheritance from Dad, especially since none of the herbivores seem to like them. I say “herbivores” because I just watched a woodchuck, on its hind haunches, pulling down and eating black raspberry leaves from canes below the back steps. And to think I’ve been blaming it on deer.

I took a slow, early afternoon walk, drawn on by a singing scarlet tanager. I never did see the tanager, but I had a good view of a foraging yellow-rump high in an oak tree. It is still the delicate season, but the leaves are expanding fast. The oaks dangle rose and gold flowers while tiny, perfect leaves sprout from above.

May 8. I was out by 8:30 a.m., still sore and stiff and moving slowly, but able to walk. I heard yellow-billed cuckoos, great-crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers when I walked up First Field Trail. A red-tailed hawk, its breast shining white, sat on the Sapsucker Ridge side of First Field, but it flew off as I approached.

Inside the exclosure, two pink lady slipper plants had germinated, but only one had a flower stem. Tent caterpillars have erupted as the cherry leaves have unfurled. I watched a Baltimore oriole poke into a couple as I crossed the powerline right-of-way.

Two wood thrushes foraged on First Field Trail. An ovenbird sang behind me as I sat on Turtle Bench. Black flies buzzed around my face.

By the time I made it up to Alan’s Bench at 9:30, it was warm and the view hazy. In the few days I’ve been down, several shades of green, from gold to emerald, have softened the mountains as the trees have leafed out. In the distance, a hooded warbler sang and close by a chipping sparrow buzzed and trilled. Once again the wood frogs have lost out. The largest vernal pond is almost gone.

One of the dozens of perfoliate bellworts along Sapsucker Ridge Trail bloomed. Finally, I saw a “chit-banging” scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field. I also saw and heard a snorting buck. Tiger swallowtails flapped past as I sat on a log at the edge of the field.

The small deer exclosure was jam-filled with Canada mayflowers. Clumps of Solomon’s seal waved above them. Striped and red maple, hickory and cherry saplings had leafed out. Blackberry vines grew in one corner and wherever they stuck out of the fence they had been nipped off. A deer track runs right beside and around the fence so not much grows outside of it in this flat area of the mountain.

Celandine bloomed on the Far Field Road bank. Early saxifrage still blossomed. Wild azalea was out along Laurel Ridge Trail and I stopped to breathe in its sweet aroma. A bumblebee worked over every opened blossom.

May 9. I walked down the road to look for wildflowers and birds. Two returns soon greeted me–Acadian flycatcher and red-eyed vireo. All the wildflowers were up, including Indian cucumber-root by the dozens. Gaywings and wild geranium bloomed full tilt. A haze of green on every tree and shrub, the sun shining through and setting the forest alight as it wakes the trees from their long fall, winter, and early spring sleep and brings back the singing birds from their sojourns in the tropics.

Eight Jack-in-the-pulpits bloomed on the side of the charcoal hearth. I heard worm-eating warblers, which have been back for several days, many Acadian flycatchers, black-throated green and black-and-white warblers, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and Louisiana waterthrushes as I proceeded down the road. I found clintonia leaves out in several places but few flower stalks. Red elderberry shrubs flowered. Kidney-leaf buttercups and foamflower were out, along with smooth yellow, sweet white, and long-spurred violets and bumblebees foraged on foamflowers and smooth, yellow violets.

As I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I heard a northern parula singing high up on Laurel Ridge.

I caught a ride back up with Bruce, because I am not yet fully recovered, and as we walked down the driveway from the car, Bruce talking and me listening to what sounded neither like a brown thrasher or gray catbird imitating birdsongs, a northern mockingbird flew off, flashing his semaphore-like white and gray wings. That’s only about the third time we’ve ever seen a mockingbird up here even though they are common in the valley yards.

May 10. Clearing but humid weather that the birds love. On Greenbrier Trail, practially every bird species possible sang and called, but I had very few glimpses because the underbrush and trees have leafed out thickly. So once again it’s ear-birding.

While trying to track a new song, a Swainson’s thrush flew silently up from the underbrush and allowed me a good, long look, front and back. It had very few light spots on its upper breast, which made it a first-year bird, according to Sibley.

Dogwoods bloomed and I found a ninth jack-in-the-pulpit on top of the charcoal hearth. The bishop’s cap has spread along the stream bank along Pit Mound Trail.

May 11. I had a beautiful view of a singing worm-eating warbler high in a tree along Laurel Ridge Trail, his head thrown back, his beak open, his small body vibrating. Next, I heard the first eastern wood pewee of the season. And then a blackburnian warbler.

May 12. International Migratory Bird Day (see separate post here, and complete list on the Plummer’s Hollow site).

Mother’s Day flowers

May 13. Thirty-nine degrees at dawn and clear. A perfect Mother’s Day.

The first dame’s rocket bloomed in Margaret’s yard. The birds still sang, though not as many as yesterday, as I walked through the now-green tunnel of Ten Springs Trail. Even the oaks were fully out in most places, and birds sang as disembodied voices.

Coming down Ten Springs Extension, I found wild geranium in full bloom, a fading perfoliate bellwort, a couple jack-in-the-pulpits, and the long-spurred violets still out. So too were the purple trilliums and foamflowers. My Mother’s Day flowers were in the hollow, freely given by nature to all who would look. New clintonia plants had emerged just above the big pull-off. That flower too is spreading, although this year its leaves are many, its blossoms few. Sarsaparillas displayed their greenish-white balls of blossoms and the bells of Solomon’s seal dangled beneath their green leaves. Wood betony flowered along Margaret’s access road and slope, although again there were more leaves than gold-tipped brown flowers.

May 14. The lilacs are spectacular and perfume our way around the yard, as well as acting as attractants to butterflies and hummingbirds. Large beds of deep blue ajuga grow amidst the tall, green lawn.

I counted lady slippers and found 45 and only one had possibly been nipped. I also had a good view of a singing blackburnian warbler and another of a hooded warbler and heard a couple black-throated blues. And I saw the male sharpie as soon as I circled around the bottom edge of the spruce grove. Where was he on the IMBD?

Mayapples bloomed at the Far Field thicket. At least sixteen celandine plants bloomed on the Far Field Trail roadbank.

May 15. “Che-bec, che-bec,” a least flycatcher called in the yard. The pair of Baltimore orioles looked over a nest-building site, while the flickers peered out of their nest hole in the walnut tree.

Along Greenbrier Trail, the redstarts were in full throat, probably because the females had returned. Two male scarlet tanagers tussled briefly, and then I spotted a female nearby. Best of all, I saw and heard a hyped-up cerulean warbler.

Later, I looked up in time to see a chimney swift flying overhead. That makes three resident migrant birds–least flycatcher, cerulean warbler, and chimney swift–that I didn’t get on the IMBD!

Walking up along the stream from Pit Mound Trail, I found many Indian cucumber-roots, Solomon’s plume, and even a few maple-leaved viburnums. Acadian flycatchers and red-eyed vireos sang along the stream. Canada mayflower and Solomon’s plume bloomed. I also found at least one young red elderberry shrub, a small sign that the native shrub layer may be expanding.

Even though I was only a few yards from the road, it was as if I were in a different world, an earlier, greener world of sparkling water and singing birds, an Eden that probably did exist before humans discovered it.

The usual patch of early ragwort bloomed along the road above the forks. Even though I have seen great patches of this flower in other places, it seems to remain only in a small patch in one place here.

I checked the tiny pond for any sign of wood frog tadpoles and all I saw, as I approached, was one spring peeper that leaped into the algae-covered water. I spent a while trying to clear off at least some of the algae with my walking stick and flinging it on the bank in an effort to see the water. Still, I found little sign of any life, including the usual water striders. Very disappointing. I think the algae has formed because there is no longer a trickle of water that keeps flowing into and out of it that kept it pure.

A hot wind blew by mid-afternoon as the thermometer registered 90 degrees and we hovered indoors behind closed windows that had trapped the evening cool from last night.

A Walking Meditation

Another National Migratory Bird Count day and we are blessed by a perfect May morning–cool, clear, and ringing with birdsong. This time, though, I resolve to take it easy, to move slowly and quietly, to make this day a walking meditation on the beauties of this most splendid of months. Besides, I am getting older and my usual breakneck pace on foot must be modified so that I don’t collapse at midday.

Consequently, when I am awakened at 5:10 a.m. by the eastern towhee that calls outside my window, I lie there listening and am rewarded by the singing of a wood thrush and the trilling of a chipping sparrow. Lulled by the avian choristers, I fall back to sleep for another hour.

An hour later I spring awake, this time for good, and hear a field sparrow, blue jay, common yellowthroat, brown-headed cowbird, gray catbird, yellow-breasted chat, Baltimore oriole, and American robin in my yard as I dress and head downstairs to make breakfast.

First, though, I stand on the veranda and add song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, American goldfinch and scarlet tanager to my list. But I need to count numbers as well as species and I note down two goldfinches and a pair of mourning doves.

Even though it is 40 degrees, I throw open the kitchen door to listen for birds as I prepare our cheese omelets and heat up the lemon-raisin coffeecake I made the previous day. Two loud songs, those of a great-crested flycatcher and Carolina wren, fill the air.

After breakfast, I stuff my Peterson Field Guide in one pocket and my notebook, pen, and a bottle of water in the other and I am off. Slowly, I walk around the yard looking for the white-crowned sparrow I saw here the day before, the eastern bluebirds that always come into the yard to feed on insects, and the pair of American kestrels that jousted on the electric line the evening before. There is no sign of any of them. Instead, I find a pair of American redstarts in the blooming lilac shrub beside the house, watch a pair of barn swallows swooping over First Field, track down a singing yellow warbler in the maple tree beside the driveway, and note the pair of eastern phoebes that have a nest in our garage. Off in the distance I hear the call of a common flicker.

By the time I start up Guesthouse Trail at 8:05, it is 48 degrees, and the first eastern wood pewee of the year sings “pee-a-wee.” Then another song catches my attention. Because it doesn’t sound like any song I am familiar with, I spend many minutes tracking the bird down. To my surprise, it is a blue-headed vireo singing an uncharacteristic song–a vireo that hasn’t read the books. The other two I hear during the day have.

Off in the woods the first of many ovenbirds yells “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” Worm-eating warblers buzz from their undergrowth hideaways. A black-throated green warbler sings “trees, trees, murmuring trees,” and so they are as a light breeze sways the new, tender, green leaves. Those leaves are just large enough to make spotting birds a challenge. Luckily, I can use my ears to identify the drumming of a ruffed grouse and the drumming and calling of a pileated woodpecker.

I stop to admire the first pink lady slippers blooming on the trail, and near the top of Laurel Ridge, I hit a small migration. Most are yellow-rumped warblers and red-eyed vireos, but then I am stopped in my tracks by two of my favorite warblers–a singing bay-breasted and blackburnian. Since neither nest here, I don’t recognize their songs. I stand and look and listen for as long as they perform, hoping to memorize their songs while admiring the flaming orange throat and head of the blackburnian and the bay-breasted’s more muted reddish-brown throat, upper breast and back of the head.

Since I am looking skyward, I also spot the first turkey vulture of the day gliding overhead, followed a few minutes later by a red-tailed hawk. In the distance a turkey gobbles. A few minutes later, two shots ring out. Sounds like our turkey hunters have bagged the turkey I just counted!

I continue my slow walk along Laurel Ridge Trail and stop to smell the wild azalea in bloom. Then I see a hairy woodpecker climbing an oak tree trunk and hear the sweet, robin-like warble of a rose-breasted grosbeak. A common raven calls overhead and a red-bellied woodpecker from a nearby tree. The calling and chasing of a pair of downy woodpeckers is a prelude to their mating on a tree branch. “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’ll switch you,” sings a chestnut-sided warbler.

By 9:45 I reach the end of Laurel Ridge Trail and turn on to the Far Field Road. Already, the frenzied birdsong of early morning has quieted. Now I hear only the birds in residence, which includes the first hooded warbler and one American crow. The latter are nesting now and are unusually quiet.

The flowering dogwood is in full splendor along the roadside and I sit on Coyote Bench to listen and look. Finally, I hear the “fee-bee” of a black-capped chickadee and watch a male towhee chasing a black-and-white warbler. The warbler ignores the towhee and continues feeding a few feet away from me. This handsome warbler is one of the earliest arrivals and moves woodpecker-like up and down tree trunks and branches.

A northern cardinal sings from below the road and so does the first black-throated blue warbler of the season. I move on to the Far Field and scan for the bird I hear singing. There he sits, high in a black locust tree, the first indigo bunting to return.

By 11:00 a.m., I have 51 species and my walk back home merely adds numbers to my list, including the red-bellied woodpecker yelling his head off inside our deer exclosure.

I rest by making homemade soup for lunch and then sit on the veranda and watch a pair of pileated woodpeckers on a yard tree. Just as they fly off, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers beside the same tree. Having gotten my 52nd species, I pull on my boots again. This time I set off for Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails on the ten-year-old clearcut.

Where are the blue-gray gnatcatchers, I wonder. They have been back for weeks and yet I have not heard one. Along Greenbrier Trail I hear or see four. While I am “pishing” up the gnatcatchers, a towhee and a white-throated sparrow flush from a Japanese barberry bush. Many cardinals sing and forage. This has always been a cardinal haven, even before the trees were cut.

Still moving slowly and quietly, I hear a loud, complex song that I can’t identify. Determined to see the bird I spend more than half an hour trying to track it down. But it keeps moving around and when I glimpse it, the leaves hide its body. Desperately, I count the syllables–six–and read the account of every possible warbler song in Peterson. None seems to fit what I am hearing.

Finally, the bird lands on a naked branch and I can hardly believe it. It’s a hooded warbler. I know the American redstart and black-throated green warbler have a variety of songs and I should have guessed by the timbre of the song, if not its pattern, that it was a hooded warbler.

I move on to the Bench Blind and am rewarded with a lovely view of a singing redstart as well as a parade of dogwood trees. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are also plentiful.

Then I wend my way down to the road via Ten Springs Trail and its extension into the uncut forest. There, I stop to contemplate the many jack-in-the-pulpit leaves without flowers. Last year’s drought is probably affecting this year’s blooming jacks. The other wildflowers have gone crazy in the frequent rains. So has our stream. It roars along, drowning out all but the ringing songs of the Louisiana waterthrushes. Then their alarm calls bring in a male scarlet tanager and I look and look at this favorite bird before it flies off.

My eyes now concentrate on the wildflowers. We have been away for ten days and I am pleased that the cool weather has kept them from blooming until now. Even the purple trillium, that bloomed before we left, still hold on to their blossoms.

Beds of foamflowers and wild geraniums, yellow mandarin and white, smooth yellow, long-spurred, and purple violets cover the stream bank and road bank. A line of mitrewort blooms along the stream and on top of a mound formed by a large tulip tree that went over last fall. The mound also holds white violets, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violet leaves, marginal wood ferns, and cinnamon ferns.

Next I find five colonies of the parasitic squawroot that live on the roots of large oak trees. Once, before the clearcut, there were hundreds of them, but I am happy that at least a few of these strange-looking, cone-like, yellow brown wildflowers have survived.

The three white pom-pom-shaped blossoms of sarsaparilla are in bloom on either side of the road. Fringed polygala provides a splash of pinkish-purple on the road bank. White umbels of Canada mayflower, also called wild lily-of-the-valley, stand above its bright green and shiny heart-shaped leaves. The bed of rue anemone near the forks is still as fresh as when it first opened three weeks ago.

But what about the birds? Counting birds is only an excuse to spend the whole day abroad. This day is about appreciating the natural world, about having a reverence for life, about being grateful that I am alive and well and able to once again experience that greatest show on earth–an Appalachian spring.

An Aural April

On a misty morning in early April, I set out on a listening walk. The fog was so thick I could barely make out the trail in front of me. But although my visibility was almost zero, my hearing was excellent.

First I stood in our yard and listened to the assorted whistles of a flock of red-winged blackbirds that filled up several of our black walnut trees. These birds always visit us during foggy days in early spring.

I also heard the cheerful singing of Carolina wrens, the “cheer, cheer, cheerily” of American robins, the “wick-a-wick-a” call of a northern flicker, and the excitable “churring” of a red-bellied woodpecker. Song sparrows held forth from the weed tops of First Field and American goldfinches gave their “per-chik-o-ree” flight calls as they navigated overhead.

Down along our road I glimpsed a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes through the fog. One scolded on a branch above the stream; the other silently walked on a branch in the stream. Two days earlier I had heard their ringing, cascading song that out-competes rushing stream water as I walked up our road, but on this day they seemed to be silenced by the fog.

Not so the first returning blue-headed (formerly solitary) vireo. His louder, more definitive rendition of the red-eyed vireo’s song is also higher in pitch, and that morning it rang from the woods above the stream.

Sitting on the Hunters’ Bench beneath huge Norway spruces that dripped with condensed fog, I listened to the syncopated drumming of a pileated woodpecker, the musical, rising “chur-lee” of an eastern bluebird, and the buzzy trilling song of a chipping sparrow.

I walked up the Steiner/Scott Trail and was stopped in my tracks by a ruffed grouse drumming so close by that I could hear its reverberations, yet I could not locate him or his drumming log even though I sat and listened and peered through the fog at all the likely places. Instead, I was rewarded by the first singing ruby-crowned kinglet of the year. His song, a complex series of notes and warbles, always ends with “look-at-me, look-at-me, look-at-me,” only I couldn’t see him either.

Next I heard the cat-like mew of a yellow-bellied sapsucker and spotted him through the fog, sipping sap from a hickory tree that was encircled by old sap wells and overhung with grapevines.

A deer loomed like a specter ahead in the fog as I reached the Sapsucker Ridge Trail, but it looked at my silhouette and fled. Squirrels scolded unseen. At the Far Field a field sparrow sang his plaintive, minor key song the entire time I circled the field on Pennyroyal Trail.

Then a turkey gobbled below me. I sat and listened as he gobbled on and on, but again I could see nothing. A northern cardinal sang its brilliant “clear, clear, pretty, pretty, pretty” song; an eastern towhee called “che-wink,” and a white-breasted nuthatch “yanked” from a nearby tree trunk. Still, the turkey gobbled, stopping only when I continued my walk. I may not have seen him, but he must have seen me.

By the time I reached the Far Field Road, visibility had widened only to 100 feet in all directions. Below the road another unseen grouse drummed. Along First Field Trail I heard the liquid, quiet, burbling song of a brown-headed cowbird.

When I finally walked back into our yard, three hours after I had left it, towhees, cardinals, field sparrows, Carolina wrens, red-winged blackbirds, chipping sparrows, goldfinches and song sparrows called and sang in the still thick fog. After an almost silent winter, I welcomed the swelling chorus of songbirds, both residents and migrants.

In April, if I am lucky, I hear the songs of some of our wintering birds before they move on to their breeding grounds–the lilting warbles of American tree sparrows, the haunting “Oh Canada, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” of white-throated sparrows, and the musical trills of dark-eyed juncos. I am also delighted to hear what I think of as the inverted eastern meadowlark song of brown creepers and the tinkling, trilling song of winter wrens that goes on as long as ten seconds, making it the longest song of any bird in eastern North America.

Our year-round residents also tune their pipes, which, except for the Carolina wrens, have been relegated to calls for many months. “Tut-tutting” robins metamorphize into brilliant choristers; the “dee-dee-dees” of black-capped chickadees change to musical “fee-bees.” Tufted titmice “peter-peter” and mourning doves coo.

Best of all, are the returning birds, and I tick them off day after day by their songs–the thin, squeaky “zee-zees” of blue-gray gnatcatchers, the “wee-za, wee-za, wee-zas” of black-and-white warblers, the “witchedy, witchedy, witchedys” of common yellowthroats, and the “robin-with-a-cold-in-his-throat” of scarlet tanagers.

Then there are the brown thrashers, the most versatile of all American songbirds. Last April a male returned on April 16 and by the twenty-first he was courting a female in the guesthouse backyard. We sat outside after dinner and listened to unending thrasher diversity, each song repeated twice, a distinct pause, and then on to a new one. They only occasionally mimic other species and, unlike northern mockingbirds, their imitations are not very good.

So far, researchers have documented between 1000 and 2000 songs, depending on which researchers you listen to. Not only that, but brown thrashers actually sing two songs simultaneously even though they emerge from their throats as a single song, according to Barry Kent MacKay in his informative book Bird Songs.

Every year brown thrashers learn more songs despite singing only during a brief period each spring while they establish territories and attract mates. Most males hold forth exuberantly from exposed perches, their tails pointing down, making it easy to see as well as hear them.

Even on clear days, most birds are not as cooperative as thrashers so I continue to use my ears as much as my eyes. On one cold, windy morning I listened to juncos as I sat on Bird Count Trail. Suddenly, I heard a hissing sound. Through an understory of blackberry canes I spotted a displaying ruffed grouse, his tail fanned out as he shook his black ruff and then rushed at a robin on the ground nearby. When the grouse saw me, he flew off, but I remained sitting in the warm, sheltered spot.

Then I heard, as well as saw, tussling in the Japanese barberry shrubs to my left. Two male towhees emerged almost at my feet. The one in the lead picked up a twig, carried it a few feet, dropped it, hopped a few feet further, and flew. The second towhee flew back near the barberry shrubs. Both continued calling, but the one nearby sang a few bars of “drink your tea.” Later, I learned that I had witnessed “debris-carrying” which is performed by a relatively subordinate bird during territorial boundary disputes.

The climax to my aural April occurred on the twenty-fourth when our son Dave interrupted my breakfast at 7:00 a.m.

“Mom, come quick! A hermit thrush is singing on Laurel Ridge.”

Although I see hermit thrushes during both the spring and fall migrations, they rarely sing, and when they do, their songs are brief. So I didn’t have much hope as I dropped everything, pulled on my hiking boots and, with my apron still tied around my waist, ran up Guesthouse Trail behind Dave.

But three-quarters of the way up the ridge, the hermit thrush was still singing. He was so close that we heard every nuance of his ethereal song. Then, a particularly strident blue-headed vireo began to sing, silencing the hermit thrush. I waited for a short time and heard nothing more.

Finally, I continued to the top of the ridge and turned right on Laurel Ridge Trail. After a couple hundred feet, I heard the hermit thrush singing again and sat down as reverently as if I were in a church to listen to his organ-like tones. For a short time, he sang a solo. Then the first ovenbird of the year piped up with his far inferior “tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher” song and two blue-headed vireos, one on either side of the hermit thrush, joined in.

This time he was not deterred by his competition. The hermit thrush was clearly the master and the other birds mere apprentices and they quickly subsided.

I listened raptly as he sang, but slowly the volume of his song lessened as he moved further along the ridgetop. After half an hour, the concert was over. I never saw him fly. I never even caught a glimpse of him. He remained an enchanting, disembodied voice in the spring forest.

The late Sigurd Olson, in his book The Listening Point wrote, “Everyone has a listening point somewhere…some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe…” His listening point was on the remote shore of a North Woods’ lake in Minnesota. Mine is on a mountain in Pennsylvania’s ridge-and-valley province, especially in spring when hearing birds, like hermit thrushes and our resident wood thrushes, is even better than seeing them.