In 1926, Whip-poor-wills refused to leave the central Massachusetts town of Dunwich until after Halloween. The birds gathered in flocks — another inauspicious behavior — outside the Whateley farmhouse. There, the birds chanted their call in unison:
whip poor will, whip poor will, whip poor will.
Lavinia Whateley was never seen again.
H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is arguably the most famous horror story to invoke Whip-poor-wills. Lovecraft has the birds engage in all sorts of un-Whip-poor-will-like behaviors — the flocks, the chants in unison, the late autumn departures. The birds are keyed to the deaths of humans, especially the “unnatural” humans like the Whateleys.
Lovecraft’s story wasn’t the first to invoke Whip-poor-wills to elevate a horror story. Washington Irving had a Whip-poor-will torment Ichibod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” No doubt, the species was once common and well known around Tarrytown, where the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier pursued Crane. Crane, who seems generally afraid of the dark, heard the Whip-poor-will’s call as a moan, which blended with other noises: “the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.”
Neither was Lovecraft the first to invoke the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will. A decade or so before Lovecraft’s Whip-poor-wills postponed their fall migration to collect Lavinia Whateley’s soul, the journalist Clifford Raymond kept Whip-poor-wills at the Harteley House through October Hunter’s Moon. The birds waited around for this forgotten novel’s climatic scene, foretelling a death at the haunted house.
Out of Place, Out of Time
Nightbirds have long had a hold on the human imagination. They appear as shadows to us, as poor as our night vision is. They hoot and screech and churr and jar from hidden perches. We’ve associated them with impending doom — illness, suffering, death.
Shakespeare knew this, portending Caesar’s death by a daytime owl.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market-place, Hooting and shrieking.
“Screeching owls are almost universally feared,” the anthropologist Edward Armstrong writes in The Folklore of Birds (1970, p. 115). But “this bird was especially ominous because of its unnatural behaviour.”
Thus, the literary allure of the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will, who persists into the darkness and cold of October — the Hunter’s Moon, the Halloween. And so, too, the allure of the unusual flocks that Lovecraft imagines, birds who chant with rather than against each other. Or the daytime Whip-poor-wills of Chapelwaite, an Epix series based on Stephen King’s short story Jerusalem’s Lot.
When birds no longer heed the laws of nature, something monstrous approaches.
So what should you do if you hear a Whip-poor-will on Halloween?
Today, the southern suburbs of Denver are beneath 9 inches of snow. Our songbirds are quiet. In my yard, they waited out the winds and cold, taking advantage of the warmest part of the day – only 20 degrees and mostly cloudy – to forage bird and wildflower seed in my yard.
Only a few weeks ago, the world wasn’t like this. The fruits of shrubs and vines didn’t yet show their age. Wasps and flies still found the supple creases in berries, lapping seeps of sugar.
And songbirds hunted tinier insects yet.
Birds of Prey?
It’s difficult to see a songbird as a hunter — and a merciless one at that. The smallest ones — kinglets, nuthatches, bushtits, and chickadees — are not only adorably diminutive. They’re also clownish in flocks. They honk (nuthatches) and dangle upside down (nuthatches and chickadees). Or, as Bushtits do, they move in endless streams of one following the other, as cartoon clowns do when they emerge from a too small car.
But they are merciless indeed, no less so than any bird of prey. It’s just that who they hunt is too small for us to perceive and too alien for us to mourn.
And so it was, a few weeks ago, that I stood underneath a hawthorn tree outside a nondescript office building in Centennial. A noisy flock — is there any other kind? — of Bushtits called me over.
At first, I stood in wonder of how tolerant they were of my presence. But I should have known better. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me. They were just more committed to their hunt than they were to avoiding me.
The flock was indulging in a meal of mealybug. Phenacoccus dearnessi, to be exact: Hawthorn Mealybug, seen in my photo below.
A Matter of Scale?
Mealybugs are roughly 1/25th the size of the three-inch long Bushtits. Coincidentally, this is about the same ratio as a Bushtit to me — and it leaves me wondering if the scale works out in roughly the same way. I struggled to find the Mealybugs, though I experienced no such difficulty tracking down the Bushtits.
Looking at the Mealybug, I initially thought that it must take a miracle for a flock of Bushtits to find something so small. Or perhaps it was evidence of some avian superpower to locate tiny movements of gray against gray bark.
Or maybe it spoke to the Bushtit’s level of commitment to the hunt, a commitment I could never muster. After all, so much for a Bushtit depends on occasionally pillaging a plant of its pests. I got this blog post for finding the Mealybugs. They got survival.
But perhaps the Bushtits just see the Mealybugs as the same size as I see Bushtits?
I’m sure a little more research could tell me if this is so. But I like to think it is, and that the world appears to a Bushtit to be filled with Bushtit-sized beings no less remarkable than a Bushtit.
What the century-old reports of Denver’s first ornithologists tells us about the birds and changing urban landscape.
In 2015, I became a “patch birder,” focusing my outings near my central Denver apartment. Usually, this meant visiting Cheesman Park and Denver Botanic Gardens next door. In part, I did this to spend less time in my car and more time in the field. But I also did so because at that time, Cheesman and the Gardens were “underbirded,” a term meant to describe locations with relatively few checklists on eBird.
At the start of 2015, fewer than 90 species had been reported to eBird from the two locations. This gave me the opportunity for one of the undisputed thrills of birding: To “discover” species in the middle of an urban center where many had yet to be recorded — in this case, central Denver.
So that spring, I visited both locations regularly — and I was rewarded with “discovery” after discovery. In April and May alone, I added 16 species to the joint Gardens/Cheesman hotspot list on eBird. In fall and winter, I added another 11. With fresh attention to this rather overlooked location, more other birders joined in. By the end of 2015, the hotspot list had grown by one-third, to more than 120 birds. In the years since, birders have boosted the eBird checklist to 150 species.
Among these additions were many “good” birds for urban Denver: Red Crossbill, Common Poorwill, Brown Thrasher and Sage Thrasher. Philadelphia Vireo, a rarity, visited in September 2015, giving good looks to me and Chris Rurik, who identified it. In May 2017, another local birder found Virginia’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, and in April 2018, both Long-eared Owl and Loggerhead Shrike on the same day! Suddenly, a tepid, back-burner destination on Denver’s eBird map was hot.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons birding Cheesman and the Gardens in 2015: eBird is an imperfect guide to the reality of birds in our region, and there is a long history of birding in Colorado still awaiting discovery.
So many of us rely on eBird to lead us to lifers, rarities and “good” birds — and yet, here in central Denver, hidden from eBirders for years, were at least 150 common, uncommon, and rare species.
Digging into the history can help us understand how our present-day finds are often encounters with birds that have long visited our state and its people . . . people like William H. Bergtold, whose century-old footsteps I would soon find myself retracing in Cheesman Park.
Born in 1865, Bergtold lived and birded in central Denver more than a century ago. He came to Colorado, as I had, from the Northeast; we both grew up in upstate New York. For a time, he even worked for my current employer, the University of Denver, teaching in DU’s medical school at the end of the 19th century.
An 1899 note in the journal Science reported that Bergtold was the first president of what may have been the first bird-related organization in the state, the Colorado Ornithological Association. Over the first three decades of the 20th century, he published numerous reports, articles, and books on Colorado’s birds. Those writings led me to Bergtold. Yes, while looking for Cheesman’s birds, I found one of the park’s first birders.
Bergtold wrote one of the state’s first books for birding, A Guide to Colorado’s Birds. Through his articles, he did something further — he told stories of the times. In a 1921 article about the “English Sparrow” (now House Sparrow) and the rise of motor vehicles, Bergtold speculated that the transition to automobiles from horses in urban centers might reduce the population of a despised non-native bird. Not only would fewer horses mean fewer horse droppings (road apples?!) for starving sparrows to comb for morsels, it would “probably also (make) the species’ street life so hazardous and fatal as to drive it largely out of the business area” of downtown Denver.
Many of Bergtold’s reports focused on birds in Denver and surrounding cities. He publicized other birders’ accounts of uncommon and rare birds. Noteworthy was a pair of Northern Cardinals that apparently nested in Littleton for several years. Reading Bergtold’s reports today, I can’t help but marvel at the city of a century ago — its natural and human-made landscapes, the birds that populated them, and the people who watched those birds.
“The Birds of Denver: An Annotated List,” Bergtold’s 1917 essay in The Wilson Bulletin, is riveting for what it tells us about bird diversity in Cheesman Park and around the city. Some species we take for granted today were far less numerous in Bergtold’s time — and others that were common here in his day are scarcer now.
Writing about the American Crow, Bergtold noticed one “flying over Eleventh Avenue and Corona Street, December 7, 1913.” Another Crow was “seen in Cheesman Park, May 1, 1917.” Where he once noticed a single bird, I have watched hundreds of crows fill the park, which seems to be a staging ground for overnight roosting in late autumn and winter. Spotted Towhee, a rather ubiquitous backyard sparrow these days, was even scarcer. On Jan. 1, 1913, Bergtold wrote, “One detected in Montclair,” a Denver neighborhood 3 miles east of Cheesman. Black-capped Chickadees (in those days called Long-tailed Chickadees) hadn’t even begun nesting in Denver but instead were “regular winter visitors,” he said.
His reports also reflect what the city has lost to human alteration of once-natural landscapes. Pine Siskin was once a common spring nester in Denver, the bulk arriving “early in March, and many linger till June . . . probably going to higher altitudes to nest a second time.” Bergtold tells us Black-headed Grosbeak and Bullock’s Oriole were common breeders throughout the city a century ago. Although less common, Lazuli Bunting and Northern Mockingbird both were regular summer breeders in the city, too. Although Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas II lists them all as breeders in Denver County, none seems as common in the city as Bergtold suggests they once were.
One bird I’m particularly fond of roosts in the midst of these losses and gains. According to Bergtold, Common Poorwill was an infrequent migrant through Cheesman Park — and it still is today.
Having stalked through Cheesman a century after Bergtold, I like to think there was a connection between the poorwills we both encountered. I imagine that through decades and generations of humans and birds — then, now, and after us — the poorwills come and go, only occasionally resting in places like Cheesman where birders decide to look.
To read more about Bergtold, consider these articles:
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
The first to causes unknown, three decades or so ago. I was a child, perhaps ten or twelve years old. I collected an ill or wounded bird from near my family’s home. My uncertainty about her condition says everything. The bird died, because she was dying and because all I had was a human’s stubborn belief in the life-giving force of a human’s stubborn belief.
I kept the robin in a shoebox, believing her recovery was only a matter of rest and food. I fed the bird grass, believing her association with the damp lawn was about the plants, rather than the worms and insects I’d later learn she so effectively hunted.
Over days, the bird lay motionless, shallow breath proof of life. To me, her death seemed slow, perhaps tragically so. But I think it’s more correct to say that she died only as quickly or slowly as what killed her would take her. I buried her, in the shoebox, on Memorial Day, thinking the act and timing significant.
I then neglected American Robins. Even when, two decades later, I became a birder, I thought robins too much a caricature of a bird to deserve my attention. More Disney cartoon than wild life, robins walk like every bird is supposed to walk, run like every bird is meant to run, and feed on a cliché—the early bird getting the worm that ought not to have dawdled.
It was like this for me until 2014, when I decided to attend to a flock of robins at Cheesman Park in central Denver, Colorado. In the presence of these birds—a sign of warmer seasons—I tried to will spring into existence, laying on the cold February ground to photograph one of them at eye-level.
But recalcitrant robin he was. Instead of performing his photogenic wildness, he looked for the wildness in me. My photographs show him staring back, seeming to meet the gaze of my camera.
So I left him and found the rest of the robin flock in the small, landscaping trees that edge the park. I stayed with one member of the group, who perched with her back to me. I did this for roughly fifteen seconds, collecting a dozen or so photos, before the flock convulsed as one.
In the act of photographing, I almost missed the moment, the meaningful signs that a flock of birds gives in the presence of their hunter—the tightening across their bodies, the change in the urgency of their calls. I whirled as the flock took flight, trying to follow the group. I found instead, on the pavement, about ten feet from me, a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk with her prey.
Sharp-shinned Hawks kill by constriction. They tighten their talons around their prey, choking air, then life from songbirds and small mammals. And so the robin, beneath this small hawk, gasped. And so the robin called out, perhaps involuntarily, as the accipiter undid the robin’s breath. Meanwhile, I held my own, resisting the urge to flail and shout and rob the hawk of her well-earned meal. (Imagine my intervention, and this wounded robin dying regardless of my efforts while the Sharp-shinned Hawk went unfed.)
A third time, about four years later, in my new neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Denver. On a walk, I encountered a Black-billed Magpie running interference on American Robin parents as another magpie hammered at the skull of a still living fledgling.
The bodies of hawks—bills and talons, especially—prepare them for the work of death. By contrast, magpies’ minds are more lethal than their bodies. (This is probably true of all corvids—crows, ravens, magpies, jays. I think it’s fair to say that it’s also true of a certain primate species.) Magpies’ bodies prepare them for exploration and their omnivorous, opportunistic lifestyle. Their minds, though, prepare them to plan raids on nests and vulnerable young. And so the fledgling’s death was pure terror to this human observer—protracted and inefficiently violent. And, it seemed to him, deep tragedy to the fledgling’s parents who leapt and called and failed still.
I watched from afar, aghast as I have ever been at the capacities of non-human animals. I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to bring some relief to the suffering fledging. I wanted to keep the parent robins from this loss and the panic they showed before it. Instead, I left the magpies, as I had left the hawk, with their well-earned meal. Given the timing—it was early June—I suspect they delivered the fledgling to their own hungry young.
When I’ve shared these observations with other birders, I admit all it took for me not to try to rescue the robins. Often, others respond without pausing for thought or reflection, offering clichés, which are no less true for being clichés.
Nature is cruel.
Death is cruel.
Death is part of nature itself.
A hawk or magpie, as the case may be, must eat.
Intellectually, I understand and appreciate these messages. They encage the tender human muscles and brake the impulse to act on death denial, the belief that the protection of life is always an absolute good. Ruminating on them now, I recall in judgement the boy I was, who thought a wild being’s death could and, so, should be forestalled by a cardboard box, a bed of grass, and human intentions alone.
But clichés can be true without being all the way true. I find these as one-sided as those that moved me to try to rescue a robin. For just as the younger me was certain a robin ought be saved, these clichés offer an alternative certainty: that the necessity of a non-human animal’s death strips death and the animals themselves of meaning.
These clichés are used not merely to convey moral imperatives, but also to shape our attitudes and perceptions. Their subtext is that the mature observer must remain blasé in the face of life-giving death. Unattached to the bird who delivers death to the robin. Unmoved by the robin who delivers life in return. Uncurious about what it means to be in the presence of both.
I accept that the hawk must kill. And yes, the magpie will, too. It follows, then, that the robin must die. But what passes among the hunter and hunted? And what of the human witness, who hardly understands the lives of robins, or hawks, or magpies, or even his own species, let alone the ways they experience the extinction of life?
I do not know what a robin’s death means—not to the robin, the hawk, the magpie, or me. But I think I know this: there is no slogan that contains the death of a robin. I think I know some other things, too. One may feel for the life being taken toward death, even as one resists the pull of the feeling toward intervention. One may grieve for a robin, even as one honors the exchange between predator and prey.
All other meanings robins bring with them. And whatever they leave behind belongs to the birds who take them away.
This essay first appeared in the Center for Humans & Nature’s Blog. Featured image of an American Robin at Denver Botanic Gardens by Jared Del Rosso.
What the trajectory of Common Nighthawks tells us about the suburban landscape.
I’m an agnostic in all things but nighthawks, for with the bullbatI hold this belief: one cannot pursue the bird directly; rather, one can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross theirs.
My faith in the bird was born amid their southward migration through Denver, Colorado, in September 2015. I’d gone looking for nighthawks in a place where and at a time when I thought it likely I might see one. Common Nighthawks are (mostly) crepuscular; they hunt for flying insects through dawn and dusk. Walking around central Denver’s Cheesman Park after sunset, eyes aimed upward, I found only brown bats. I sat a while, awaiting night, and watched these other things with wings. Then, I left.
In truth, I just readied to leave. I sat in my car and, though it was a Sunday and though it was evening, I compulsively checked my email. A (lengthy) message from my department chair at the University of Denver greeted me. Compulsively, I read it, though I believe one should neither mix time off with work nor birds with the same. Dusk gave way to night. The bats gave way to a still park.
At the end of the email, nighthawks.
A trio, emerging from the nearby neighborhood, furiously pursued insects under the park’s streetlights. I left my car and followed them. Nighthawks, like swallows, feed on the wing, catching insects as they fly. They are strong, agile fliers. I have seen them cut upward, leaning backward as they do, in pursuit of prey. They make micro-adjustments that give them a “tipsy” appearance, as Pete Dunne puts it in his Field Guide Companion. To me, they appear confident in the air. Untouchable, even. Nighthawks always seem to be beyond their human-observer, even when approaching them—a twist of angles always cutting away. Unlike songbirds, which rarely fly directly at people, this trio chased their prey wherever it went, even if it meant flying directly at me.
An arm’s length away, a nighthawk.
One can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross the trajectory of a nighthawk. I spent this past summer seeking just that. I let my dogs lead me. I indulged every detour and delay. We turned home when they wanted to. We inspected dead ends. We doubled back on trails. We lingered when the dogs wanted to linger. We sat together in fields and on curbs. I suppressed my better judgement of where and when the birds would appear. By maintaining the appearance of not seeking nighthawks, I hoped I could fool serendipity into delivering them.
I did so to try to document the bird’s presence in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, during the bird’s nesting season. A mid-June sighting gave me hope. My dogs and I sought the birds above a buggy marsh at a local open space. The setting sun inspired the complex chorus of catbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows. But I missed a simpler sound: the buzz of the bird I sought, the distinct, nasal “peent” of a nighthawk. As dusk deepened, my dogs decided it was time to head back to our car. (One dog is afraid of the dark and what it means in Colorado: wild canids. The other is simply not much for walking.) I obliged, though I wanted to keep seeking.
Nearer to the car, the dogs changed their minds, insisting I let them chase each other around me. Though leashed, the dogs sprinted circles. To keep myself from their tangle, I spun with them. Once, twice, then—and only because the dogs had chosen when to turn back and when to stop for play and when to turn me in the right direction—a nighthawk.
I seek the nighthawk’s trajectory because I measure the world by this bird. They arrive in Colorado late in spring migration, just as that season tips toward summer. They leave before autumn begins whispering of winter. But the bird isn’t just a sign of the seasons. Their presence speaks of the complexity of our climate, the non-human world, and the human/non-human nexus. Obligate feeders on flying insects, the Common Nighthawk’s steep population decline over the past half-century may relate to broader declines in their prey, owing to pesticide use, the warming planet, and other factors. Nighthawks are losing habitat, too. Some of that habitat is their wild habitat of grasslands and forests. But they’re also losing built habitats in urban and suburban environments. Nighthawks use the flat, gravel-covered roofs of many urban buildings as nesting sites. Unfortunately for the birds, most new development forgoes gravel for other materials, such as rubber. (Patches of gravel, installed on flat roofs, are a potential compromise that may support nesting nighthawks. New Hampshire’s “Project Nighthawk” is experimenting with this.)
The fate of Common Nighthawks is tethered to us, in ways that the fates of many non-human animals are. But it isn’t easy to observe our entangled destinies. Nighthawks are not like the chickadees that visit our feeders, the finches and phoebes that nest on nooks around our houses, the corvids that seem more at home around our homes than we do, or the hawks that hunt on our highways. Nighthawks nest on our skylines. They migrate at incredible heights, and the vast majority of these birds pass over our summer and fall activities without being noticed. By day, they disappear into trees, grasses, and rocks. Their cryptic feathering renders them invisible. If you’ve ever lucked into a sighting of a nighthawk on a tree, you know how easy it would be to overlook the bird. You also know that nighthawks don’t care that you’ve found them. Their faith in their camouflage, their use of difficult to access perches, and the fact that they have no need for daytime activity allows them to tolerate proximity to us.
Ultimately, my trajectory and the Common Nighthawk’s did not intersect during their nesting season. Perhaps this is a sign of the species’ decline or of my neighborhood’s hostility, with our grassy lawns and dependence on pesticides, to the birds and their prey. Perhaps it is only that I have not yet found our shared trajectory.
But I have learned something else from this effort. Pursue this uncommon bird, during the uncommon hours of dawn and dusk, and you will find the trajectory of other uncommon creatures. Those brown bats, one of which dropped me to my knees by hunting at the brim of my hat. A raccoon, ambling down a drainage ditch. A coyote, patrolling an undeveloped field. Fox kits, playfully hunting along a neighborhood path. Great Horned Owls, perched in suburban parking lots and cemeteries. A Mule Deer pair, cautiously watching the human animals who ride bikes, and toss baseballs, and walk dogs while seeking nighthawks in fields near riparian corridors.
Spring migration is upon us. Here’s to the unique joys of slow birding.
Among the first lessons new birdwatchers learn has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with the people who watch them. Those who are serious about watching birds call themselves “birders,” eschewing the more generally familiar “bird-watcher” label.
I don’t remember when or how I learned this lesson. Certainly, it wasn’t from my field guide. Sibley uses the two words interchangeably, though he seems to prefer “birding.” Dictionaries, too, don’t much distinguish between the two words. Merriam-Webster defines one term by the other — to “bird-watch” is, simply, to bird.
I suspect I learned of the differences from other birders, whether from those I encountered in the field or those that write about birding online. Just google the distinction and you’ll find blogs, essays, and articles expounding on differences that are undetectable in the dictionary definitions of the two.
So what’s the difference? A New Yorker review of the film adaptation of Denver birder and writer Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year distinguished the two in this way: “Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.” Yes, but I think the differences are deeper. Writing last year for National Audubon, Freya McGregordescribed how she often hears birdwatching defined as a more relaxed, leisurely appreciation, while birding focuses on chasing and listing birds, often in a competitive way. Frequently, birdwatching is considered more amateur, while birding’s regarded as more serious and legitimate.
Many of us think of ourselves as birders, not bird-watchers. We do “watch” birds, but watching as a means to an end — identifying bird species, sometimes as many as possible, the “sport” of birding.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Many birders are excellent bird-watchers, if we mean the simple act of observing birds to understand them better. Many serious birding outings — whether alone or in groups — have moments of long watching, to enjoy the beauty, behavior, or individuality of the birds we see.
Still, allow me to make the case for the particular joys and passions of bird-watching — watching a bird, the bird, closely. In a few moments, I’ll tell you about a bird that has done that for me this winter.
You’ve heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But between species, familiarity is a prerequisite for understanding. The longer we bird-watchers do our thing — watch a specific bird, species or individual — the more likely we’ll get to see birds do theirs. By watching, we may see, hear, and even feel their way of being in the world. “Feel”? Yes, I’ve had a flock of Bushtits pass closely enough to feel the breeze of all those tiny wings.
Some watchers of birds attend so closely that they even know individual birds, naming specific ones and picking them out of flocks. I am reminded of author Leonard Dubkin and his daughter Pauline naming pigeons in The Natural History of a Yard — and of the great corvid observers Lyannda Lynn Haupt and Bernd Heinrich doing the same with crows and ravens, respectively. I can’t say I know which are the true resident Spotted Towhees in my yard — the Him and Her of that space — and which of the others this winter are their offspring or visitors. I don’t think I’d know the difference if another Northern Shrike suddenly replaced the one I’ve been watching, off and on this winter, at Willow Spring Open Space in Centennial.
Even if we can’t yet tell a specific individual, we can still detect a lot. Take that shrike, for instance. I’ve noticed that the famously unafraid “butcherbird” can be as withdrawing as any other songbird. A male American Kestrel steals its perch, and the shrike retreats, calling in protest as it goes. (Birds of the World notes that shrikes on their breeding territory will chase off kestrels. But this young shrike is on winter grounds.) And like the American Tree Sparrows also at Willow Spring this winter, the shrike hid away when a male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost,” coursed through and then above the shrike’s hunting ground.
One more thing I’ve learned. This particular shrike seems to favor small rodents over small songbirds. Though my observations are admittedly limited, I’ve only seen it pluck rodents from the grasses and weeds. It seems to ignore numerous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that fly over. In one hunting attack in the grasses, the shrike landed next to a small flock of tree sparrows yet seemed to ignore them.
Birds of the World offers no clue to this shrike’s apparent preference for rodents. Maybe there are more voles this year. Maybe it’s the other predators. Or maybe it’s simply this: I haven’t yet watched the shrike enough to see its songbird pursuits.
Maybe that’s the point (it’s certainly one of the pleasures) of bird-watching. It forces us to slow down and notice more about where we’re watching birds and what else is there. Certainly, spending 30-45 minutes in one spot, and returning there frequently means less time in other spots, other habitats — and fewer species per outing. But remaining still, in one small patch, widens our view to other things, doesn’t it?
Things like the mammal tracks, the tufts of fur snagged on thorns of wild plum, scat, rodent trails, wasp and spider burrows — not to mention an uncommon or unexpected bird that may happen along as we watch. And also those fall and winter seedy weeds, wildflowers, shrubs and vines, all food sources to be surveyed to see how birds use them, and how that shapes our future bird-watching and birding visits.
Gradually, slowly, but never completely, the places where we bird-watch snap into sharper focus. I’ve known, in a general way, why I see the shrike, the kestrel, the sparrows, hawks, harriers and coyotes at Willow Spring — food, of course. But the gap between knowing that fact and experiencing it in the birds’ everyday actions is as wide and expansive as the open space itself.
One day, might we begin to list bird-watching experiences, observations, and learnings alongside our birding checklists of species and numbers? Stories may be harder to quantify, and eBird won’t be keeping state-level rankings of bird-watchers with the most of them. But bird-watching encounters are no less meaningful than birding ones.
This essay originally appeared in Denver Field Ornithologist’s newsletter, Lark Bunting.
The Thrush family includes Bluebirds, Robins, and Blackbirds. The songs of these birds have inspired poets, songwriters, and birders for centuries. Here are the songs inspired by these birds…
Human songs, like the names we give birds, are a funny thing. Their meaning often remains just out of grasp, at least in part because they change depending on their context.
Take The Beatles’ iconic song “Blackbird.”
To the ears of a new American birder, it’s a strange thing to sing to a blackbird. After all, our continents blackbird’s — notably, the Red-winged Blackbird, but also birds like Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds, and Brewer’s Blackbirds — aren’t known songsters. They creak instead of singing (to our ears). Sure, their songs tell you almost all you need to know about the arrival of spring. But they’re not particularly musical.
But the Blackbirds of Europe and Asia, where Paul McCartney may or may not have heard one singing in the dead of night, are. As genus Turdus, members of the True Thrush family, these Blackbirds belong to one of the most renowned families of bird songsters.
According to McCartney, the song wasn’t ornithological, but a coded message to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Even so, the encoding works because Blackbirds are prodigious singers, as Robins are, filling the pre-dawn minutes, sunrise, the morning, the early afternoons, then the dusk again with their songs.
Thrushes and Everything After
The extended family of thrushes includes birds like the Wood Thrush, about whom Henry David Thoreau wrote,
This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.
Many species of Thrushes can do this. For me, the Veery changes all hours into the long North Woods dusks in which I first heard them.
The Veery’s song is such that the account in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World can’t help but dabbling in poetry. Accounts in Birds of the World are usually restrained. But the Veery’s song is described with a word that is nearly as lovely as the song itself: “mellifluous.” One does not get four sentences into the account of the Veery’s song before reading that the
Ethereal quality of Veery’s song has been celebrated in prose for more than a century. “Their song consist[s] of an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive” (Baird et al. 1874b).
Three Songs Inspired by Thrushes + 1 Bird Formerly Known as a Thrush + 1 Blackbird
Not surprisingly, human songs find inspiration in the songs of Thrushes. Or perhaps it’s somewhat different. We try to embellish our own music by borrowing the magic of theirs. Here are three songs inspired, one way or the other, by Thrushes. And a fourth inspired by a bird formerly known as a Thrush. And fifth from one species of Blackbird — who, unlike the Common Blackbird, is indeed a Blackbird, though you might not know it.
Dan Deacon – “True Thrush”
Sure, Dan Deacon’s “True Thrush” doesn’t mention thrushes. But there’s the common name for genus Turdus, that of the Common Blackbird and the American Robin, right there in the song’s title and in the frenetic video for this even more frenetic song.
Horse Feathers – “Starving Robins”
Staying with genus Turdus. The indie band Horse Feathers’ plaintive song “Starving Robins” is a song about the struggles of seasons, as well as the movement of time. As spring tries to emerge from winter, we’re met with another frost–
Right out of the blue
A frost came to abuse
Down where the deer ate the dying grass
Near where the starving robins asked
Where's the Spring?
I can relate. I suppose that means the local robins can, too. Here in Colorado winter and spring intermingle until late May. We’re never really sure of the change, until it’s too late and the summer’s upon us.
Tallest Man on Earth – “Where Does My Bluebird Fly?”
One hopes that the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson hasn’t spent his years in Europe looking for these flying bluebirds. As forlorn as this song would be such a search: Bluebirds are Western Hemisphere thrushes, nowhere to be found in Europe (despite an earlier reference to them along the White Cliffs of Dover).
Bluebirds are not nearly the songsters that members of their extended family are. But no thrushes are more certain signs of spring. Though Thoreau was thinking of the Eastern Bluebird when he wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” it is the West’s Mountain Bluebird that does this, surely.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
According to the venerable Wiki, two European nightingales — the Common Nightingale and the Thrush Nightingale — used to be categorized with Blackbirds and Robins in genus Turdus. Today, both are genus Luscinia and recognized to be Old World Flycatchers.
Lost in the common names? Let’s get loster. Europe’s Robins are also Old World Flycatchers, but to the Europeans who came to the Americas, the New World’s Robins looked enough like the Old World ones to deserve the name.
Want to get loster still? In North America, several species of birds carry the folk name “American Nightingale.” One is the Hermit Thrush. The other is the Northern Mockingbird, neither a Thrush nor a flycatcher, but a member of the family Mimidae.
Back to the Nightingale. One of Europe’s most famous songsters, the bird has inspired songs on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the early standards is the love song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Written in France in 1939 about a romantic encounter in a London park, the song’s been often covered, especially by American crooners (Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin).
Fleet Foxes – “Meadowlarks”
The Common Blackbird looks like a blackbird, but isn’t. Meadowlarks borrow the name of the Lark family, but don’t belong to them. With their straw-brown back giving way to a bright yellow chest, Meadowlarks doesn’t like they’re at home with among blackbirds. But like Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, and Orioles, Meadowlarks are members of the Icteridae family.
The three species of meadowlarks that nest in the U.S. are remarkable singers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Western Meadowlarks have a repertoire of about a ten songs. Their eastern counterparts have 5-10 times that. Despite the prodigiousness of the Eastern Meadowlark, it’s the Western that’s garnered more attention. Six states honor it as their state bird: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Like other blackbirds, the Meadowlark’s song is one of the surest signs of spring.
The Fleet Foxes’ “Meadowlark” is a lovely homage to this grassland bird.
This morning, a walk along the High Line Canal Trail in Greenwood Village proved eventful. For most of the walk, a drone — pilot unseen — beat me around every corner. It flew higher than nearly any of the birds, save a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.
Wednesday’s snow meant a fairly fresh canvas covered by mammal tracks. Indecipherable ones lined the canal — coyote perhaps, but I’ve also seen a bobcat in the area. Rabbit, raccoon, and rodent tracks crisscrossed the trail.
Down along the Little Dry Creek, signs of beaver activity. Should the beaver have any success at building, their work will certainly be undone. Homes, the trail, and nearby roads all come to close to the creek for Greenwood Village to abide beavers.
A Baffle of Bushtits
During my short walk, I had the good fortune to encounter a flock of 15-20 Bushtits. They were in a productive patch of the canal, along with Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Juncos, Songs Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees.
Every encounter with Bushtits is magic. They’re incredibly active birds, moving from spot to spot in ways that mean you can never be sure you’ll indeed meet them while birding.
This flock might have been satisfied feeding along the canal, undisturbed by me and my camera. But a Sharp-shinned Hawk had other plans. Entering the scene to briefly perch on a power pole, the hawk inspired the Bushtits to give an emphatic, noisy warning call. They went quite for a time, as the hawk stayed perched. But as soon as the sharpie took off again — flying directly away from the Bushtits — the Bushtits called again.
I’d not heard this vocalization from Bushtit before. Apparently, they reserve it for small avian predators, namely Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. Joseph Grinnell documented this in a 1903 essay. Referring to the call as a “confusion chorus,” Grinnell speculates that its radiating intensity causes accipiters to lose individual Bushtits to the din.
A flock of bush-tits will be foraging as usual, with the ordinary uncertain medley of location-notes, when suddenly one or two birds utter several of the sharp alarm notes and then begin a shrill quavering piping. This is taken up by the whole flock, until there is a continuous monotonous chorus. At the same time every member of the scattered company strikes a stationary attitude in just the position it was when the alarm was first sounded, and this attitude is maintained until the danger is past. In nearly every case the danger is in the shape of a hawk, more especially of the smaller species such as the sharp-shinned or sparrow hawks. No matter how close the hawk approaches, the shrill chorus continues and even intensifies until the enemy has passed. The remarkable thing about this united cry, is that it is absolutely impossible to locate any single one of the birds by it. The chorus forms an indefinably confusing, all pervading sound, which I know from personal experience to be most elusive. This confusion-chorus, as I think it might be appropriately called, is a sure sign of the appearance of a small hawk even a long way off.
It seems reasonable to infer that this monotonous chorus of uncertain direction, at the same time as it sounds a general alarm, serves to conceal the individual birds, all of which at the same time maintain a statuesque, motionless attitude. Their colors also harmonize closely with the shadows of the foliage. The whole evidently forms a composite protective device, which must be, as a rule, effectual.
Beyond the Bushtits, I encountered a female Northern Flicker in a cavity in a cottonwood. She sat or perched deep in it at times, her head barely visible in the cavity.
She stayed in the cavity for some time, perhaps watching me watch her.
What was she doing? We’re months away from when flicker nesting usually begins. I didn’t notice any obvious nest building activities — no excavation of the cavity, no interactions with a mate.
Perhaps the sun, after snow, sparked something — as, for all of us, it tends to.
Fri 17 Feb 2023 9:58 AM High Line Canal Trail–Greenwood Village / Centennial (Arapahoe Co.)
16 species observed
Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1 Northern Flicker, 4 Blue Jay, 2 Black-billed Magpie, 7 American Crow, 2 Black-capped Chickadee, 5 Bushtit, 15 Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 2 European Starling, 3 American Robin, 10 House Finch, 9 Dark-eyed Junco, 2 Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), 1 Dark-eyed Junco (Pink-sided), 1 Song Sparrow, 2 Spotted Towhee, 2 Red-winged Blackbird, 35
In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.
I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.
This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.
Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.
The Wrong Reader
And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.
To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.
Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.
For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.
Do Rare Birds Need Us?
The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.
This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.
I asked ChatGPT to create a list of 5 birds named after their songs. The chatbot went 0 for 5. What went wrong?
Worried about ChatGpt? Not me. (At least not yet.) I previously asked the popular chatbot to explain the Whip-poor-will’s name, and it made the same mistakes of 18th century ornithologists. Now, I’ve asked ChatGPT to “Write a blog post about 5 U.S. birds who are named after their song or call.” It offered me this list of birds who definitely don’t sing their name.
Five Remarkable Birds Who Sing Their Names, according to ChatGPT.
Birds are one of nature’s most beautiful and melodious creatures. From their brightly colored feathers to their sweet songs, they are a delight to watch and listen to. In the United States, many species of birds are named after their distinctive songs or calls, making it easier for us to identify them. Here are five such birds and their fascinating stories.
Eastern Bluebird: This beautiful blue bird is known for its cheerful “cheer, cheer, cheer” song. It is a common bird in the eastern United States and is often seen perched on fence posts or trees. Eastern Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and hope, and their sweet songs can brighten up even the dreariest of days.
Wood Thrush: This bird is easily recognizable by its beautiful, flute-like song that echoes through the woods. The Wood Thrush’s song is considered one of the most beautiful in North America and is often described as a rich and melodious “ee-oh-lay”. These birds are found in deciduous forests across the eastern United States and migrate to Central America for the winter.
Northern Cardinal: The Northern Cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds in the United States, with its distinctive red feathers and sweet whistle-like song. The male cardinal’s song is a series of clear, sharp “cheer-cheer-cheer” notes, which can be heard year-round. This bird is a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands across the eastern United States and is a popular bird with birdwatchers.
Tufted Titmouse: This small, acrobatic bird is known for its unmistakable “peter-peter-peter” call. The Tufted Titmouse is a common bird in deciduous forests in the eastern United States and is easily recognizable by its distinctive crest of feathers on its head. These birds are often seen flitting about in the treetops, diving into bushes, and hanging upside down in search of food.
American Robin: The American Robin is one of the first birds to arrive in the spring, signaling the arrival of warm weather. These birds are known for their cheerful “cheer up, cheerily” song and are easily recognizable by their distinctive reddish-orange breast. American Robins are found across North America and are a common sight in gardens, parks, and woodlands.
In conclusion, these five U.S. birds are a testament to the beauty and diversity of nature. From the Eastern Bluebird’s cheerful call to the Wood Thrush’s flute-like song, these birds remind us of the magic of the great outdoors. So next time you’re out on a hike or in your backyard, take a moment to listen for these birds and enjoy their enchanting melodies.
What Went Wrong?
We got off to a good start. The chatbot recognizes that there are indeed birds named for their songs.
Unfortunately, the list offers only the most popular and common eastern U.S. birds. Four of the five have well-known songs that can be translated into English — either with words, “Cheer up, cheerily,” or through approximation, “ee-oh-lay.” But clearly none of these birds is named after their song. The Wood Thrush does not sing “Wood Thrush.” The Norther Cardinal doesn’t call “Car-din-al.” The chatbot entirely missed the distinction between having a song that can be translated into words and those whose name is a translation of their song.
ChatGPT also attributed the Cardinal’s song to the Bluebird. Bluebirds are famous for singing. We can thank Disney for this. But bluebirds are not, from the human perspective, remarkable singers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their song like this and not as “cheer, cheer, cheer”:
a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles.
5 More Remarkable Birds Named After Their Songs
Let’s try again, but with a human writer.
Chickadees. Chickadees are remarkably intelligent, social, and vocal birds. Often, they don’t vocalize their names. So it can be easy to forget that chickadees take their name from their “chick-a-dee” call. Research suggests that they vary the call, encoding messages in it. Remarkably, their messages convey information about predators, such as the size or speed of the threat.
Eastern Towhee. Not all towhees call their name. But the Eastern Towhee is said to. The Eastern Towhee’s song has been translated into English as both “drink-your-teeaaa” and “to-wheeeee.” Only one of those is suited for a bird name, I suppose. The Eastern Towhee has also been given a name after their call: “Chewink.”
Eastern Phoebe. Not all phoebes call their name. (Are you sensing a pattern? As European naturalists first encountered eastern North American birds, the continents other birds received hand-me-down names.) A common bird around homes and other structures, Eastern Phoebes indeed seem to rasp Phoebe’s name.
Bobwhite. No longer widely known by U.S. Americans, Northern Bobwhites were once a staple of popular culture, known for their ability to whistle the English name, “Bob White.” Apparently, everyone knew the bird. Or at least this is what Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby banked on when they sang, “Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight).”
The Wills. Four Northern American Nightjars are said to sing the name “Will“: the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, Chuck Will’s Widow, and the Common Poorwill. Odd thing that these birds would all learn the name of an Englishman. But they did, and all through North America our summer nights fill with Wills.