Greg Peck: What are the birds telling us?
I was walking my dog in predawn darkness today, before the birds in our neighborhood started their daily activities. So I stepped outside again at 7 a.m. and listened. Besides the hum of the distant Interstate traffic, I heard two distinct sounds within seconds: The cawing of a crow and the familiar call of a male cardinal.
In late January of every year, I hear the cardinals, calling from top branches of trees or from rooftops. I first heard one about a week ago.
Does that mean spring is coming? Yes and no.
Male cardinals sound their spring song as a response to lengthening daylight, not necessarily warmer air ahead.
In 2014, my friend Nancy Nabak of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology told me that two experts she contacted suggested that male cardinals start singing the last week of January, triggered by hormones and increasing daylight.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “both male and female northern cardinals sing. The song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill. The songs typically last two to three seconds. Syllables can sound like the bird is singing cheer, cheer, cheer or birdie, birdie, birdie. Males in particular may sing throughout the year, though the peak of singing is in spring and early summer.”
Cornell’s website offers a link to the bird’s calls.
Now, about those crows.
On Sunday a week ago, while Rock County residents sat inside amid some of the coldest air this winter, I noticed a flock of about 50 crows moving from tree to tree in our neighborhood. Why were these birds seemingly wasting energy on such a frigid day? Were they perhaps gathering to stay warm?
Around the middle of last week, on my trip home for lunch, I likewise noticed a big flock of crows in a tree a couple of blocks away. Weather that day had moderated.
This weekend, I sent Nancy an email, asking if she could explain these gatherings. She passed along my question to Tom Schultz, a fellow ornithology society member whom she considers a birding expert.
“Crow gatherings can have various meanings, sometimes depending on the time of day,” he replied. “In the morning or late afternoon, they might be gathering around a favored roost site—often in or around pines. Other times, they could be mobbing (or hanging near) an owl (especially Great Horned), an activity that is usually characterized by a recognizable type of loud, aggressive cawing and chasing—especially if the owl moves from tree to tree.
“I suppose that another potential reason is that they are simply a gregarious species, and they enjoy socializing.”
That’s interesting, even if the gathering is no sign of spring.
Added Nancy: “We just keep learning, don’t we? If we could only understand bird-speak!”
Thanks, Nancy and Tom.
Incidentally, a few weeks ago, I forwarded to Nancy the December column by my colleague Anna Marie Lux about a mysterious raptor found lying on the ground off Wright Road in Janesville. The bird was identified as a Mississippi kite, a rarity in Wisconsin.
“They were very pleased to receive the Kite article,” Nancy said of the state ornithology society. “This is really important for our statewide research on breeding birds in Wisconsin.”
We’re glad to help out.