Throughout the year some birds are noteworthy for their appearance during a particular month, perhaps upon returning from some distant destination or perhaps when weather conditions cause them to feel like singing. Since February 2015 we've been posting 'A Birdsong of the Month", a birdsong to listen for in that month.
Click the name of the bird below to listen to the birdsong.
|| MARCH 2017: Violet Green Swallow Tachycineta thalassina
Welcome back the swallow. Violet-green and Tree swallows were spotted in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island February 21st, proclaiming another early spring. The Violet-green swallow colours are iridescent. Swallows feed on insects and are beautifully adapted to "hawk" for flying insects. Their beaks are a wide gape for catching their prey. Their eyes are protected by a thin, transparent eyelid, nictitating membrane, and fluid is exuded on the eye surface to enhance their vision while flying. They nest in tree cavities, cliff crevices and nesting boxes. Like most insectivores their numbers are diminishing and I have not had one nest in my yard for at least 10 years. Their bright cheerful song consists of double and single chirps as their fly high overhead searching for food.
Listen to the song from Volume 3 Track 69 Bird Songs of Canada by John Neville
JANUARY 2017: Gray Jay Perisoreus canadensis
This month's bird is easy to pick:
Canadian Geographic's recent poll for a national bird chose the Gray Jay, aka Camp Robber, Canada Jay, Whiskey Jack or Whiskey Johnny https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. The Gray Jay is found in the mountains and all across the boreal forest. It readily comes to picnic tables and campsites and if you hold out seed it may come to your hand. I once had two families of jays perching on my microphone and hand for tidbits.
The Gray Jay looks like a large Chickadee with fluffed feathers, soft gray colour and darker crown. Its voice is varied and consists of soft whistles and husky sounds. The example from Bird Songs of Canada Vol-CD 3 track 57 starts with chef, chef, chef the most distinctive call; then imitations of a Blue Jay and short whistled sounds. I have also heard very good imitations of Merlin and Red-tailed Hawk.
NOVEMBER 2016: European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
The adult Starling is a blackbird with a bright yellow bill. Its introduction into North America is an interesting story. In the 1890’s a man in New York wanted to have all the birds mentionned by William Shakespeare in Central Park New York. The Starling not only acclimatized but rapidly expanded its range into all parts of the continent. It intimidates other species to give up good nest sites or nestboxes, for example, a Woodpecker completing a nesting cavity has been known to give up the site because of the constant attention of a watching Starling. Its image is used on silver to depict quality ie Stirling Silver.
Its typical song is a series of chirps and whistles. The diagnostic sound is a wolf whistle. Its also a very good mimic of other birds and at the end of this recording, Bird Songs of Canada CD-Vol 4 Track 16, you can hear a Starling’s version of a Bald Eagle.
SEPTEMBER 2016: Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Most Canadian woodpeckers are black and white with a little patch of red or yellow on the head. They are usually seen clinging to tree trunks and using their stiff tails as a support. They create nest and roost holes by excavating with their large powerful bills. The holes can later be used by other birds and animals. In addition to the powerful bill, they have a long tongue that probes their excavations for insects and beetles. The tongue is also sticky and has bristles to help extract the food. When the tongue is retracted , it is wrapped around the inside of the skull. Drumming, another special feature of woodpeckers, is used like bird song to proclaim a territory and attract a mate. Because this is such a violent action, the frontal bone of the skull has two layers, to protect the brain from concussion.
The Hairy Woodpecker is about 22.8 cm or 9 in. tall with a white patch on the back and some white on the black wings. They are found in mature forests all across North America. The pair in our neighborhood fledged a second brood late in August. Hairy like the Pileated Woodpeckers mate for life. The Hairy is often confused with the Downy as they have a very similar appearance but the Downy is more petite (15.2 cm or 6 in compared to Hairy 22.8 cm).
The two most distinctive sounds of the Hairy are the “peek” call and a sharp rattling call that sounds somewhat like a squirrel or a Belted Kingfisher. This recording can be found Track 22 Vol 3 Bird Songs of Canada by John Neville.
JULY 2016: Purple Martin Progne subis
Here is an encouraging story about the largest of Canada’s seven swallows, the Purple Martin. Back in the 1980’s there were only five pairs reported on the West Coast. They formerly relied on the holes in wildlife trees near the water to build their nests. As these dead trees were removed, the martins and other dependant species went into decline. A society was formed to build nesting boxes and attach them to pilings on the waters edge. http://www.saveourmartins.org/
The program is very successful and as of 2015, 1100 pairs have been counted. This spring 20 new boxes were attached to pilings around Salt Spring Island and already about 15 have been occupied. Purple Martins have extremely long wings. The adult male is uniforn bluish black. Females and immatures have a white speckled belly and a white to gray collar.
Western Purple Martins like detached boxes, whereas eastern birds prefer apartment living.
JUNE 2016: Swainson's Thrush - Catharus ustulatus
Swainson's Thrush returns each year in late May and sings all through June and the beginning of July. This year, one returned to my yard on May 14th, about ten days early, and maybe an effect of global warming? The song is considered beautiful by most people, rising in pitch and seeming to disappear into the ether. It can also be described as upward spiralling and flute-like. The call notes are also distinctive and sound like “whit”, “what” and “whit-purr”. This is a drab coloured thrush with spectacled eye-ring, living and feeding in the shade of trees. Its song is its most distinguishing feature.
APRIL 2016: Rufous Hummingbird - Selasphorus rufus
There are 338 species of hummingbird, all found in the new world. Four of them breed in British Columbia. Rufous, Anna's, Caliope, and Black-chinned. If you've held one in the hand their weight is almost none existant! About 3.4 grams.
The male Rufous arrives back from Mexico in late March and April. The feathers of the throat are bright orange-red in color. The technical name is gorget for the throat. The males also have a reddish wash to the belly and usually a completely red back. The female is less brightly colored with a dash of red in the gorget and a green back. Audobon said "They are like glittering fragments of the rainbow."
The females build a delicate nest lined with spiders silk, and the outside is decorated with lichens. They lay two eggs, hatching takes about two weeks and a a further two weeks till fledging. The females can live 8 to 12 years. The males have a shorter life possibly because of the energy they expend defending their breeding territory? Preditory cats are a major cause of fatalities. The shiny colors are created by an iredescent phenomenon caused by the layering of feathers. The color depends on the angle of refracted light.
It is the fast wing-beats that produce the humming sound, between 52-62 wingbeats per second. These birds can produce figure of eight strokes to allow them to hover in front of flowers, and manoever in all directions. The presence of hummingbirds as pollinators may be essential in some areas such as the Great Bear Rainforest to maintain the ecosystem. The warm blooded hummers can pollinate plants on cold spring days when cold blooded invertebrates are rendered dormant. This means that the Salmon Berry is guaranteed to produce berries for bears and wolves, and shade for young fish.
There is concern about Rufous and Caliope hummingbird populations because of deminishing habitat, garden pesticides, and a real danger from cats. Nectar is the natural sugar produced in flowers. Because the hummers can hover, use their long bills and tongues they are able to extract the life-giving energy. They also consume invertebrates and spiders to obtain protein.
The hummers obtain most of their nectar from flowers and spread pollon from plant to plant. They visit 1000 to 2000 flowers every day. For your feeder it is recommended that 1 part white table sugar to 4 parts water , boiled for 2 minutes be used. If your feeder is out on a cold night, either use christmas lights to prevent freezing or bring the feeder indoors till thoughed out. Red feeders seem to work best for atracting hummers.
Here are two examples of humming produced by the wings and different territorial calls.
MARCH 2016: Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus
This is a large brown owl with big eyes and a dish-shaped face. They stand about 55 cm, have feathered horns and weigh 1.4 kg. If your are lucky enough to see a pair of owls close together the female is the larger. Like all birds of prey the owls have powerful beaks for ripping meat and sharp talons for catching their prey.
Owls are the only group of birds where the eyes face forward. This allows for the best forward vision when hunting through the woods. If you see one nodding or turning its head slowly it is to improve the depth of vision and hearing. The owls have no, or minimal eye muscles and therefore have to move the head to judge distances. They are able to turn their head in a 270 degree radius. The retina of the eye has two kinds of sensory cells. Cones register colours and rods grey light. It is the rods that allows the owl to hunt at dusk, moonlight or dawn .
The ears also face forward. The dish-like feathers of the face reflect sound to the ears and allow the bird to pin point its prey. The feather tufts on top of the head help to create its image but are not the ears.
The pneumonic for the Great Horned Owl is "whoose awake, mee too." In this recording you can hear the deeper voice of the male, then a fledgling starts to make begging calls and at the end a female makes alarm calls and bill clappering sounds-which is also an alarm.
FEBRUARY 2016: American Dipper, Cinclus mexicanus
This slaty-gray little songster makes a living in fast flowing creeks and rivers. Its found from Alaska to Panama and in BC from the Rockies to Vancouver Island. It hunts for invertebrates by walking along the bottom, where its short wings can also be used as flippers. It nests on rocky ledges, sometimes behind waterfalls and under bridges. It likes to perch and preen on rocky outcroppings in the middle of the stream. It may be heard singing at any time of the year and it sometimes part of an aerobatic courtship display. This bird was perched on a rock in the middle of the Salmo River near Ymir BC in February. Sound clip from Bird Songs of Canada Vol 3 CD 3 Track 95.
JANUARY 2016: American Black Duck (Anus rubripes)
The American Black Duck is a dabbling or surface feeding duck, found from Hudson's Bay to Florida but most common in Atlantic Coast saltmarshes. Length 58cm (23in) Wingspan 90cm (35in) Weight 1200g (2.6lb) Very similar to Mallard in appearance, size, and vocal sounds but darker overall especially male. They often hybridize with the Mallard. Listen for the slightly deeper quality of the female quacking of the American Black Duck compared to the female Mallard. Sound clip from Bird Songs of Canada, Chants d'oiseaux du Canada CD 1-Vol 1 Track 15.
DECEMBER: Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
At Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts there is no more iconic bird than the Wild (and domestic) Turkey. This large dark coloured bird with long legs and small head is found in woodlands and adjacent fields across North America. This recording was made in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and can be found on Bird Songs of Canada Vol 1 Track 53
NOVEMBER: Common Raven
Common Raven is a large black bird found all around the northern hemisphere. Its admired by many for its intelligence and revered in some cultures spiritually. One of the distinguishing features is its wedge -shaped tail when compared with another corvid the American Crow which has a shorter straight edged tail. Its voice is incredibly varied from deep raucous baritone sounds to high pitched bell-like notes. The swish of its wingbeats is also distinctive. Eleven of its vocal sounds are illustrated in this sound clip from Bird Songs of Canada Volume 3 track 64. If you have stories about this bird's intellectual activity or spiritual significance we'd love to hear from you.
OCTOBER: Northern Gannet
The Northern Gannet is a sleek white bird with black wingtips. It has a six ft or 160 cm wingspan. They live in the north Atlantic and breed in cliff colonies in the St Lawrence River estuary and around the British Isles. They impress observers with their steep dart-like plunge into the ocean, bill first, wings flattened(with barely a ripple). The dive may start from 100 m and reach depths up to 9m to catch a wide variety of small schooling fishes, including mackerels, anchovies, pilchards, and flying fishes.
The most famous cliff colony in Canada is at Cape St Mary on the Newfoundland coast.
Vocal Sound at the breeding site is a harsh, grating call which produces an undulating sound when hundreds are calling at the same time.
SEPTEMBER: The Red-winged Blackbird
Carouge à épaulettes, Agelaius phoeniceus The Red-winged Blackbird is one of the commonest bird species in North America. They start gathering in the cattails as soon as the ice leaves marshes and lakes. The male is black with a distinct red epaulet, hence the name. He also has a yellow wing bar. Female streaked brownish, often mistaken for sparrows; note larger size. They have at least four distinguishing vocal sounds: a song, "Kon-ka-reee” or “Kon-ka-ree-ay", a sweet whistle, and two contact calls. The short contact is a "check" or "tink" like a blacksmiths hammer, and a flourish often given by the female entering or leaving a male's territory. When waterways start to freeze in the fall they head south. On the milder west coast they gather in large roosts and stay for the winter. Where marshes have been filled in the Redwings have sometimes adapted, and now live on farmland or suburbia.
AUGUST: The American Goldfinch
This member of the finch family is well known for two reasons:
in the spring and summer the male is adorned in a bright yellow
plumage with black wings and cap and sometimes referred to as a wild canary.
vocal sounds include a long musical song with many variations. The
distinct whiny notes are mixed in with the song and continue to be heard
in the winter. The contact calls while in flight are likened to
"pa-chicory" or "potato chip".
It raises its young in the summer when
fine seeds are available such as thistle.
MAY: Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga Coronata
This is often the first warbler to appear in the spring. It is rather large, long-tailed, with a distinctive yellow rump. The song is a flat slow trill sometimes ending with a few lower or higher notes. They prefer coniferous and mixed woods for nesting.
APRIL: Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
A charismatic little bird that arrives each spring. The first one spotted in Victoria BC this year was on January 26. They act as a natural pest controller feeding on flying insects and their fork-tailed acrobatics are a delight to behold. In Europe they are simply known as "the swallow".
MARCH: Great Horned Owl-Bubo virginianus.
The Great Horned owl is found all across North America in small numbers. Length 55.88 cm - 22 inches bill to tip of tail and wingspan of 111.76 cm - 44 inches. The feathers on the front edges of the wings are serrated so that it can approach its prey silently. The 4-6 hoot sequence can be remembered by the mnemonic " who's awake-me too". The female hoots are just a little higher pitched than her mate. At the end of the attached recording you will hear an alarm call and the bill clapping alarm.
FEBRUARY: BlackCapped Chickedee.
The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most popular and well-known birds across Canada and the Northern States. Its chick-aday-day notes and Hey-sweetie songs are recognized by many. In the winter small flocks all roost together in woodpecker holes. They are able to lower their body temperature at night to conserve energy.
Bonus Birdsong "Calling" performed at Open Space Loons with Alto Flute