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Wednesday, 01 April 2009 15:11

Bluebirds continue to fascinate

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My oh my what a wonderful day

Plenty of sunshine in my way

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah

Zip-a-dee-eh

Mr Bluebird’s on my shoulder

It’s the truth, it’s actual

Everything is satisfactual

 

Through the years, I’ve written more than a few columns about eastern bluebirds. Mostly I’ve focused on when or where to put out bluebird houses. The best time to set them out is very early spring or even late winter — but you can do so right now with some chance of success. Keep trying different spots in open areas near perches until you find a location they like. Don’t place them very close to one another.

But I’ve never written about their songs. The early 20th century ornithologist A.C. Bent was of the opinion that the bluebird is, “No great singer; he cannot begin to compete with the greatest songsters of the thrush family.” Well, in our region, the thrush family includes birds like wood thrushes and veerys, both of which are terrific singers. It’s hard to compete in company like that.

Nevertheless, to my ears, the bluebird’s song has always seemed exceedingly pleasant. And now that I’ve read The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005) by Donald Kroodsma, I’ll be even more attuned to their varied singing strategies.

Kroodsma singles out a particular bird and records it time and again, capturing on tape the myriad vocalizations that that individual utilizes while mating, feeding, defending territory, and raising young. Later he transcribes the individual songs into sonograms (visual renderings of the songs) and utilizes computer technology to enhance and analyze the data.

After awhile, sometimes after many months or even years, Kroodsma begins to “see” what the birds are up to with their vocalizations. In other words, listen carefully and listen often, but don’t expect each song to be a carbon copy. Individual male bluebirds will vary in their vocalizations — and the same bird’s song will differ some from vocalization to vocalization, or from place to place, or during different times of the day, and so on.

Roger Tory Peterson described the bluebird’s song as “a musical ‘chur-wi’ ... 3 or 4 soft gurgling notes.” For David Allen Sibley, the song is a “pleasing soft phrase of mellow ‘chiti WEEW wewidoo’ and variations.”

The Birds of America Online (subscription) Web site provides the following observations in regard to various eastern bluebird vocalizations:

“’Tu-a-wee’ is the most common vocalization ... [It is] loud and low pitched, with an abrupt beginning.

“Their ‘loud song’ is a rich warbling, low in pitch and often rapidly delivered, usually by males ... During singing bouts, the male may pivot his body so that he sings sequentially in opposite directions. Sometimes the male spreads his tail while singing or lifts his tail vertically. Males sing their ‘loud song” from conspicuous high perches, sometimes in flight ... They give the ‘loud song’ as advertisement of territory establishment and to attract breeding females.

“Sometimes called a ‘whisper song,’ their ‘soft song’ [is given] when females are laying eggs [and] may function to assure her of the male’s presence.

“Sometimes preceded by one or more clicks, the ‘predator song’ (also called the ‘anger song’) is given in the presence of nest predators by either males or females from protected perches.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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