Fall is well underway, and many birds have left our area for their wintering grounds further south. As a result, you may have noticed that you don’t hear as many birds. Now is a good time to discuss bird songs and calls.

Generally speaking, the sounds made by perching birds; chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, cardinals and others, are described as either “songs” or “calls”. Using these loose definitions can be a helpful way of understanding the birds around us.

Songs are thought of as those long, melodic vocalizations that we hear in the spring when birds are staking out territories and attempting to attract mates. Calls, on the other hand, represent a wide range of other sounds birds make as they go about their business. These sounds are used to signal alarm or to stay in contact with each other.

These two categories can provide insights into bird behavior. Think about chickadees. You probably know when a flock of chickadees is around. Even without seeing them you are likely to recognize their chirps, peeps and buzzes. Most of us have been scolded by a chickadee at one point or another.

These sounds are generally considered calls. However, chickadees also sing. A good indicator that spring is around the corner is when you hear chickadees singing, “Hey sweetie.” This is a song that males use to attract a mate or to stake out a breeding territory.

Scientist are learning that this simple distinction between songs and calls may not be as clear as it was originally thought. I was always taught that only the males “sing”. However, it has been discovered that for a growing list of birds, both males and females sing. This suggests that birds have a more rich and complicated vocal life.

Take our chickadees. In an essay on the Birds of North America website, chickadees are described as having 16 or more distinct “vocalizations”. A common phrase heard from chickadees is, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-deeee!” Is this a song or a call? It’s made by both males and females. Plus, scientist’s think it may communicate complex information depending on how it’s sung. Also, one chickadee flock may prefer to sing this phrase in one particular way, while birds from another flock sing with a different accent.

So, listen for different calls and songs from your bird neighbors. They have a lot to say and who knows what you might discover.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to [email protected]


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