This time of year the Centennial gets VERY quiet. While it has always been obvious, it is even more obvious this winter with low snow levels and thus few winter guests.
While I love the quiet, in fact I crave it when I visit 'the real world', I never realized how much I noticed (and came to enjoy) the 'normal' winter sounds. That includes the ice booming and cracking on the lake, the wind whistling through the evergreens, the tick-tick of snow on my clothes, the whish-whish of my skies through the snow, and (if I head south) the distant soft trumpets of the Trumpeter Swans on Widgeon Pond.
This year the Trumpeters are gone - at least in our part of the valley. Widgeon is frozen - the first time in six years and due, I believe, to the Refuge's new plan which calls for the draining of Culver Pond. I miss the sound of my 'winter friends' chatting away in the distance.
Believe it or not, that is exactly what they were doing - chatting.
In the spring the valley is much noisier. Water rippling over small obstructions, cows lowing in the far distance, the babble of the lake against the shore, the splash of a fish catching breakfast, the rumbling of a rare vehicle engine, a child's lilting laugh caught by the soft breeze, and the whistles and songs and chit-chat of the returning birds. In the spring, the Centennial can be a noisy place - overflowing with nature's prattle. But is it that - is it prattle?
A couple of years ago a guest, recognizing my fascination with our feathered friends, recommended I purchase a book by Dr. Donald Kroodsma entitled 'The Singing Life of Birds.' To date I have not done so. However, thinking about the sounds I miss started me wondering about birds. Why did the swans continue to 'trumpet' softly for the two hours I watched them last fall? Obviously they were not disturbed. Could they have been 'talking'?
What about the ducks whose calls echo back and forth across the lake from dawn to dusk? Or the Sandhill Cranes whose haunting call always compels me to stop and listen? Or the eagles and hawks who scream overhead? Or the birds which sing in the willows just outside my window? Are they saying something I am not privy to understand?
I think most of us realize animals use sounds and body language to communicate. Ruffled Grouse beat their wings to attract mates. Songbirds sing glorious tunes to attract their mates. Male hummingbirds do arial acrobatics to show their worth to watching females.
The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. So, I turned to the Internet (what would we do without the Internet?). Here are a few things I learned:
Birds use both 'calls' and 'songs' to express themselves. Songs are typically related to courtship and are a compilation of sounds. Calls are short and usually express alarm or allow various birds to track one another's location.
Usually the males sing while females are limited to calls. (Boy am I glad for the male House Wrens. There is nothing like their "Good Morning" song to brighten my day!) Most birds sing when perched, but a few species sing when flying.
Finally, birds produce song in a manner similar to the way humans produce words - by forcing air through their throat. Amazingly enough, some birds have the ability to produce two sounds at once by independently controlling both sides of their trachea.
I'm not sure where you are right now. Maybe the birds are singing outside your window right now. Or, maybe like me, they have flown to warmer climates. Wherever you may be, I hope this little bit of information has increased your appreciation for the marvelous creation we call 'birds'! I know I'll listen with greater comprehension and understanding when my feathered friends return.
Lady of the Lake