Birds have scolded me a lot lately. I often don’t deserve it. The only thing I can tell by the sound is which bird is cursing me.
I’ve walked miles of back roads for the past seven weeks as a volunteer for the Maine Bird Atlas Project. This has brought me close to many nesting birds, which has resulted in a flurry of bird tongue outbreaks.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife sponsors the Atlas Project. In short, the entire state has been divided into 9 square mile blocks. Volunteers examine these blocks and list every bird they can find, with an emphasis on figuring out which birds will beget babies. Because there are hundreds of bird species in Maine and each species has a specific habitat preference, the atlas is a useful tool for assessing changes in the landscape over time. Breeding studies are repeated every 20 to 30 years.
Currently, Maine, New York, Maryland, and North Carolina are all compiling an atlas. Last weekend in June, the four states held a lighthearted competition to see who could best help find baby birds. Maine won. I’d like to say it’s because the Maine volunteers are better bird watchers, but it’s probably because we got more practice. Maine’s project is in its fourth year. The other states started recently.
As you can imagine, birds want to keep their baby making private. If you get too close to the nest, you are easily scolded. But the type of swearing varies as the season progresses. Now that I’ve practiced for four years, I can actually tell what nesting stage the birds are in. You can do that too.
When the returning migrants first arrive, there is a lot of singing to defend the territory and to make friends. The birds are not particularly concerned about your presence. As soon as the first egg is laid, the females practically disappear. They spend most of their time in the nest, sitting quietly, hoping that you don’t notice them. When they leave the nest to feed, they do so as secretly as possible so as not to reveal their location. During this time the male can protest if you get too close to the hiding place, but he is also careful not to attract too much attention.
Once the chicks hatch, both parents will get louder. After all, eggs are dumb, babies are not so much.
The risk of detection has increased and both sexes are becoming more active with their scolding. They sound the alarm when you are further away and fly closer to challenge you.
Once the chicks have fledged and left the nest, they are most vulnerable and their parents are the most vigilant. They started scolding me when I was 100 meters away. It’s kind of silly. They may want me to stay away, but they actually say, “Hey you! I have babies over here! ”
This dynamic occurs mainly in birds that are close to the ground. Most sparrows do this, especially white-throated sparrows. I think I’ve had words in tongues from hundreds of them this year. Orange sparrows do it too, maybe even in your own garden.
Common yellow throats are masters at scolding. Furnace birds and Canada singers stay closer to the ground than most grass singers, and some of them gave me a real opinion last week. Birds that nest higher up in the tree are less likely to complain. They correctly assume that you aren’t climbing there to get them. However, I got amused by several black-throated blue singers. When the chicks leave the nest for the first time, they usually stay close to the ground. I had a grown woman who blew a fuse as I was walking by. She was so excited that it was only through total panic that she revealed where her girl was hiding. I hurried.
Some families of birds are not particularly disturbed by humans. Most flycatchers don’t care. They know they can surpass anything you have in mind. Woodpeckers usually have nothing against your presence. Thrushes care, but not very much. The only exception I’ve seen this spring is when I accidentally walked too close to a young Swainson Thrush. The mother sounded like she wanted to kill me.
The tongue-lashing season is almost over. The kids will be on their way and their parents will ignore you again.
But now you know what to listen to next year.
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