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.
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.
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.
Three hundred years ago, naturalists couldn’t tell the difference between two iconic species of birds. Today, ChatGPT is making the same mistakes.
I recently asked ChatGPT an easy question: “Why a Whip-poor-will is named a Whip-poor-will?” The popular chatbot muddled its way through an answer, making some of the same mistakes as 18th century naturalists. Not satisfied with its errors, ChatGPT introduced new ones!
Wilson “Discovers” the Whip-poor-will
In the first decades of the 1800s, the Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote his nine volume book, American Ornithology. Wilson’s text remains one of North America’s most important book of ornithology. Indeed, many consider Wilson the continent’s first ornithologist.
One of the many achievements of American Ornithology was to finally and definitively describe the Whip-poor-will, a common but reclusive bird of North America’s east coast. Before Wilson, early naturalists confused the Whip-poor-will with a related and more conspicuous bird, the Common Nighthawk. Confronting this confusion, Wilson writes that the Whip-poor-will has “never been described by any writer whose work I am acquainted.”
It wasn’t that the Whip-poor-will wasn’t known to early European naturalists who visited the US. The bird’s name dates to the early 1700s, after all. What Wilson shows, over the course of 2.5 pages on the species, is something else. Early naturalists regularly confused the Whip-poor-will with other North American Nightjars, especially the Nighthawk. Illustrations of Whip-poor-wills often combined both birds’ features. This plate that appeared in Mark Catesby’s studies of North American birds is illustrative. The drawing combines the long, lanky shape of a Nighthawk with the bristles of a Whip-poor-will.
Audubon, a professional rival of Wilson, downplayed Wilson’s effort. In his influential book, The Birds of America, Audubon writes.
Much has been said respecting the difference existing between the Whip-poor-will and the Night Hawk, for the purpose of shewing them to be distinct species. On this subject I shall only say, that I have known both birds from my early youth, and I have seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the United States, who did not know the difference between them.
I suppose that Audubon and his unnamed farmers and boys would be bemused at ChatGPT, which appears stuck in the late-1700s on Whip-poor-wills. When I asked it to explain how Whip-poor-wills got their name, the chatbot opened with a muddled collection of errors. It also offered a word, hwipporu, that doesn’t seem to exist.
The bird species known as the Common Nighthawk, which is also known as the Whip-poor-will, is named for its call, which sounds like “whip-poor-will.” The species’ scientific name, Chordeiles minor, also refers to this call. The name is thought to be a derivation of the Old English word “hwipporu,” meaning “to make a noise.” The bird species is known for its distinctive nocturnal song which is usually heard at dusk and dawn. They are named after the call of the male bird which is a repetitive phrase, “whip-poor-will” which is sung as a territorial call or as a courtship call by males.
Here’s a list of errors that I’ve noticed.
The Common Nighthawk hasn’t been known as the Whip-poor-will since the late eighteenth century.
The scientific name of the Common Nighthawk is indeed Chordeiles minor. However, this doesn’t refer to the call of “whip-poor-will.” I cover the meaning of this name in my post about the Nighthawk.
I’ve not yet read that the name Whip-poor-will is thought to be a derivation of “hwipporu.” I’m curious to know more, but neither Google, Google Scholar, nor Google Books returns a single reference to this “Old English” word.
We indeed known Whip-poor-wills are indeed known song, which they give at dusk and dawn. This makes the call crepuscular, not nocturnal. (Of all the mistakes, this one is minor.)
That this account reflects understandings of birds from colonial America is stupefying. But it gives me some satisfaction and hope that artificial intelligence has not yet mastered what is obscure among us. Much of what is important to know falls into this category. After all, what remains obscure to us, and to the technologies we create, is simply that which we do not know well.
Find the obscure, the weird, the forgotten, and you will find something that the algorithms don’t yet care for. Such is the life of the Whip-poor-will, calling still from the rotten woods of our forest floors.
For more on ChatGPT’s struggles will birds, see my recent post on the chatbot’s effort to create a list of birds named after their song.
For Henry David Thoreau, a Whip-poor-will’s call conjured a world we were already losing.
Prior to the 1950s, Americans interpreted the spring arrival of Whip-poor-wills as a sign and not always a welcome one. The birds foretold life and love, yes, but also illness and death. Those more dependent on the earth found something else: a message about impending frosts, storms, and ripened fruits.
After World War II, the Whip-poor-wills had all but disappeared from American consciousness. Sure, we saw a dramatic increase in roads, farms, clubs, and camps named after the bird. But the real thing? It called from ever decreasing patches of woods, often out of earshot of an increasingly indoor and alienated human species.
That is one story of how Whip-poor-wills came to inhabit only the wild edges of America. Another begins earlier by a century or more.
Tuesday, June 10, 1851, was “a beautiful summer night, not too warm, moon not quite full, after two or three rainy days.” The writer of these words, Henry David Thoreau, used the evening to walk to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, by railroad.
As he walked, he found himself farther from towns and his worry that “there would be too much white light, like the pale remains of daylight” on his walk. But he walked deeper into the night and, he writes simply, “it was better.” He encountered Whip-poor-wills and fireflies in meadows, and Nighthawks booming late in the evening.
Thoreau recognized the latter is a rare occurrence, indeed, writing,
I hear the nighthawks uttering their squeaking notes high in the air now at nine o’clock p. m., and occasionally—what I do not remember to have heard so late—their booming note.
Nighthawks are active at twilight; crepuscular birds, these are. It is a truism of their species accounts that they are very rarely active at night and, when they are, it’s usually to hunt insects drawn to artificial light. Perhaps Thoreau misjudged the time? Or perhaps the Nighthawks had been forced down the previous “two or three days” of rain and were making up for lost time.
As for the Whip-poor-wills, Thoreau recognized a broader story in their song. Here was not just natural history, but human history and culture.
The whip-poor-will suggests how wide asunder [are] the woods and the town. Its note is very rarely heard by those who live on the street, and then it is thought to be of ill omen. Only the dwellers on the outskirts of the village hear it occasionally. It sometimes comes into their yards. But go into the woods in a warm night at this season, and it is the prevailing sound. I hear now five or six at once. It is no more of ill omen therefore here than the night and the moonlight are. It is a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods.
Off hand, Thoreau suggests a tantalizing hypothesis: that the folklore and superstition surrounding the birds matured as everyday encounters with the real birds decreased. Americans once had an intimacy and knowledge of Nightjars born from familiarity. Thoreau is suggesting that, absent this, an unease and anxiety with the night side of things crept in.
In the next passage of his journal, Thoreau further recognized that the aural life of America was rapidly changing: “New beings have usurped the air we breathe, rounding Nature, filling her crevices with sound.”
I’m struck by an irony, as I type this, that I have written this entry with headphones on, a decade-old album filling Nature’s crevices with sound. Outside, this winter, are finches and sparrows, the rustle of towhees in the chokecherry thicket that edges my yard, and somewhere the trill of waxwings.
So to Thoreau’s words, return: “To sleep where you may hear the whip-poor-will in your dreams!”
The year’s first Whip-poor-will has been an omen of many things: life, love, and death. For one Alabama man, it meant a haircut.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American newspapers often carried reporting on the arrival of Whip-poor-wills to the U.S. The species’ return to country had long been a sign, to be interpreted by those who encountered it.
Arriving at the turn of spring, Whip-poor-wills portended the last frost, the ripening of vegetables and fruits, the blooming of certain flowers, and, through the Great Plains, the likelihood of just one final winter storm (the “Whippoorwill Storm”).
For some listeners, the Whip-poor-will meant even more. The first call could be counted. How many times did the bird sing its name? That tally could mean the number of years to marriage. Or death.
For one man, the return of Whip-poor-wills meant something more prosaic: a haircut. In mid-April, 1941, Rufus Huey (“Uncle Rip”) Griggs of Fort Payne, Alabama, heard a Whip-poor-will “holler,” according to an Associated Press report that I found in the Hartford Courant.
With that, spring arrived and Griggs’ had his bi-annual haircut. (The second occurring when it was time to make syrup from the maples in autumn.)
The AP’s article ran widely, appearing in newspapers in at least ten states, according to my newspapers.com search.
Within a decade, Whip-poor-wills had largely retreated from public consciousness. As Americans moved into cities and suburbs, “developing” rural areas along the way, everyday encounters with Whip-poor-wills and birds more generally diminished in frequency and importance. No more would we wait, anxiously, for a Nightjar to sing us our fate.
I await 2023’s first Nightjar. Here in Colorado, Poorwills arrive by early May. Nighthawks just a few weeks later. Now I just need corresponding rituals.
Did Whip-poor-wills arrive with strawberries and peas? Thomas Jefferson thought so.
There was — and still is — an extensive garden on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The gardens and their innovations are often celebrated as living legacies of the man himself. Of course, the truth is far more complex. African and African-American slaves constructed the gardens, worked them, and maintained their own at Monticello. For his part, Jefferson maintained detailed records of the plants grown in the garden. As can be seen in a letter he wrote to his daughter Maria in June 1790, he also kept records of the signs surrounding his plants. Some of these signs involved birds, including Whip-poor-wills.
We had not peas nor strawberries here till the 8th. day of this month. On the same day I heard the first Whip-poor-will whistle. Swallows and martins appeared here on the 21st. of April. When did they appear with you? And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia? Take notice hereafter whether the whip-poor-wills always come with the strawberries and peas.
As the letter was written in June (likely from Pennsylvania, where he lived in 1790), it would seem Jefferson heard his first Whip-poor-will rather late that year. (A half century later, Thoreau recorded calling Whip-poor-wills in Massachusetts in the first week of May.) One wonders if Jefferson wasn’t much of a birder — or if perhaps the ripening of strawberries and peas brought him outdoors, sharpened his senses, and caused him to start taking notice of the other signs of the season around him.
Maria, for her part, was too busy to note the Whip-poor-wills. In her reply to her father, she wrote,
As for the martins swallows and whippoorwills I was so taken up with my chickens that I never attended to them and therefore cannot tell you when they came…
It seems that Maria was too busy for many things. Several of Thomas’s letters of the time admonished Maria for her lack of responses. For every two or three or four letters Thomas write, Maria might offer a single one in return. The future president never missed an opportunity to remind Maria of this. He opened his June letter with these cringe-inducing words.
I have recieved your letter of May 23. which was in answer to mine of May 2. but I wrote you also on the 23d. of May, so that you still owe me an answer to that, which I hope is now on the road. In matters of correspondence as well as of money you must never be in debt.