Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bird Song Primer Part II

Transcript of Monday's For the Birds. You can hear it or on the podcast page here. All bird songs courtesy of Lang Elliott

Common Loon

Last time I talked about some basic bird songs that people can learn based on knowing the robin song. There are many other bird songs characteristic of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin that don’t require knowing the robin song as a baseline.

Most everyone recognizes Common Loon vocalizations, of not from hearing them on northern lakes, at least from Minnesota state lottery commercials. Loons make their long wail when calling family members toward them.

Only male loons make the yodeling calls we hear at night--these calls serve to declare a territorial lake and to warn other loons away.

What sounds like the loon laugh to our ears is actually the call loons make when they are fearful, so it’s the sound we’re most likely to hear when we bring our canoe too close to a family. For some reason, it’s also the call loons make in flight--perhaps they took Erica Jong’s book too much to heart.


Many people ask me about a song they hear from their cabin porch near sunset-- a song they describe as something like water spiraling down a drain spout. This is the Veery, a small, secretive thrush shaped like a robin with a rusty back and very delicate speckling on the upper breast.


The teacher teacher teacher song of the Ovenbird is another characteristic sound of our woods. Like the Veery, Ovenbirds are far more often heard than seen.

Winter Wren

I think my favorite of all the sounds of the north woods is the long, silver-threaded song of the winter Wren.

Black-capped Chickadee about to feed babies

Two whistled songs catch people’s attention a lot. Most people know the Black-capped Chickadee’s chickadee-dee-dee call, but not so many recognize its actual song, which I transcribe as “hey, sweetie.” In May, chickadees are doing a lot of singing, especially at dawn.

White-throated Sparrow

The other common whistled song follows a rhythm like “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” though when we travel up to Thunder Bay we change the transcription to “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” That’s the White-throated Sparrow.

Northern Cardinal closeup

When I moved up to Duluth, Northern Cardinals were rare hotline birds. Now they nest in many neighborhoods, and we’re hearing their rich, slurred whistles more and more.
These songs are really just a tiny portion of the great many we can hear up here in May and June. Taking the time to listen, we learn many more. And each one we master makes the next one easier. The north woods is filled with auditory delights, all free for the taking.