Birds Help You Tune In to Sounds of Spring

Spring can overwhelm the senses. With so many new sounds, colors, and smells in the air, it's important to focus on the small details. Environmental reporter Ted Williams has been keeping his ears tuned to two birds lately: the hermit thrush and the pileated woodpecker.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

For those of you who spend too much time at the computer, or listening to the radio for that matter, listen up. Here's a message from the limpkin, a resident of Southeastern swamps.

(Soundbite of limpkin)

ELLIOTT: Translation: spring is nearly here. Birds across the country are chirping more as the daylight hours grow. Some just happen to sing more on key than the limpkin.

Ted Williams is an environmental reporter and author of "Earth Almanac," a regular feature in Audubon magazine. He tracks nature's subtle changes and joins us now to talk about birds.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Williams.

Mr. TED WILLIAMS (Environmental Reporter, Audubon Magazine): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So what are birds like the limpkins trying to tell us these days?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, a few birds sing to attract mates, but usually they're marking their territories.

ELLIOTT: And they're doing that this time of year because spring is mating season.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's right.

ELLIOTT: Now, what birds do you like to watch in the early spring?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I like to watch all of them, but the trouble with bird watching is that so many of these birds are small and they're up in the canopy and you don't see them, so the best way to find birds is to listen for them. It doesn't take very long to learn the songs and calls of these birds, and the songs are different from the calls.

The songs are - tend to be longer and more melodious. And we're hearing some of the first birds right now. They're arriving. Hermit thrushes are just arriving now. They're one of the first birds to get here, and considered really the most beautiful songster that we have. You can hear them most everywhere. The best time is dawn and dusk.

(Soundbite of birds)

ELLIOTT: This does sound like spring.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It does. It's a beautiful song. It's a - birds have a syrinx. Humans have a larynx. And a syrinx is a similar organ but it's capable of much more diversity of sound. And Hermit thrushes, if you slow down the tape and listen to it carefully, you can hear them actually harmonizing with themselves.

ELLIOTT: Now we've mentioned spring is a mating season for birds, and you've been watching in particular the courtship of woodpeckers.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I have. And the pileated woodpeckers, they're huge ungainly birds. They're the size of a crow and they will bob and weave and much wing flailing and dancing around each other and they'll at times appear to kiss. They're really a spectacular bird.

ELLIOTT: You have written that the pileated woodpeckers are known to mate for life?

Mr. WILLIAMS: They do. And they're one of the few birds, and perhaps the only birds, that have been seen to actually move their eggs. If their tree brakes, the female will sometimes pick up her eggs and move them to a new location in her beak. And they cut a new nest cavity every year. Sometimes in living wood; they can chip off 14-inch pieces of living wood.

ELLIOTT: I had program with woodpeckers that seem to get confused a little bit about what is a tree and what is a chimney.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Exactly. And the reason that woodpeckers are doing this is not to get bugs. It's to show their territory. This is their call, rapid pecking, they will drum, and sometimes on rain gutters and awake you at 5:00 o'clock in the morning. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are notorious for this. Be patient because it's very brief and the mating season quickly goes to the nesting season.

ELLIOTT: Ted Williams writes the "Earth Almanac" feature for Audubon magazine. His most recent book is "Wild Moments."

Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks, Deb.

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