Memories of Birds

I heard a flock of robins this morning, murmuring softly to each other in the silver maples and hackberries. A male cardinal, tucked into our arbor vitae, whistled his “what cheer” melody. They sang memories of my dear friend Cathy, who died one year ago today.

Cathy loved birds and, as I held her hand in the silence of a January evening, a flock of robins filled the trees outside her window at Our Lady of Peace hospice. She would have loved seeing the robins. Though she wasn’t conscious, she stirred when I described their rusty breasts, black heads and charcoal backs, and how they picked berries in the twilight.

I spun tales of steamy summer afternoons when we hiked the woods and fields of Eagan, just a small city at that time; of goldfinches collecting thistledown to line their cozy nests, rose-breasted grosbeaks flashing their lovely badges along the hiking trail, and tiny common yellowthroats calling “wichity-wichity”in the willow scrubs.

An American goldfinch spreads its wings in the bee balm patch.

An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) spreads its wings to fly from the garden.

The birds continue to awaken beautiful memories. One night last November, when the “moon of freezing over” shone full and close, a great-horned owl hooted from a spruce in our front yard. I eased open a window to listen to its soothing call and remembered evening bike rides with Cathy in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  We rode wooded trails where barred owls with liquid black eyes watched us from tree limbs overhead, a hen turkey and her flock of fuzzy poults scurried about the path in front of us, and night herons croaked their calls at dusk.

Black-capped chickadees are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Perhaps it’s the tiny black-capped chickadee, Cathy’s favorite bird, that most often brings her to mind. One fine morning last spring after a night of thunderstorms, chickadees whistled to each other in my garden and the year’s first lily of the valley opened, covered in rain droplets. (She loved these flowers and tried to grow them for many years.) Cathy would have rejoiced in the antics of the chickadees, in the abundance of my lily of the valley garden, and in the beginning of a new day so fresh and lovely.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

The Dove’s Call

A mated pair of doves rest on the roof in the late afternoon sun.

A mated pair of mourning doves rests on a roof in the late afternoon sun.

The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) call is a wild, haunting sound that complements the whistle of its wings. In mid-August, doves coo softly in the cool of early morning and in the sultry late-afternoon heat.

People react quite differently to the mourning dove’s call. A work colleague who grew up on a farm found the cooing to be so sad that her family removed any nests that were close to their farmhouse.

To our young son, who was born with a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, discovering a dove’s sounds was a time of wonder. We returned home from work and daycare, one spring evening, and startled a dove in the backyard. The forceful whistle of its wings as it flew skyward was one of the first sounds he heard with his new hearing aids. He also loved their sweet call; if the doves quieted, he would spot one on the roof and say to it, “Don’t be shy little dove. Will you sing for me again, please?”

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on the wings.

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on their wings.

I love the mourning dove’s call; I find it soothing and relaxing. It brings memories of steamy summer afternoons when I was growing up. We’d imitate their calls and try to spot them in the majestic elms that shaded Saint Paul’s streets. To find a dove’s nest woven in the boughs of a small spruce tree was pure delight. How innocent they looked with their large, dark eyes and bespeckled wings, nestled on a clutch of bright white eggs. How excited we were to experience this tiny bit of nature so close to home.

Early Spring Serenade

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch .

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch.

I like the silence of frosty mornings, but I also miss the music of birds during the winter. Most mornings for the past three weeks, our resident cardinal has greeted the sunrise — cloudy or clear — with song. At first he sang one short burst of bright song. Over the next week, it grew to several minutes of song at dawn and another round later in the morning. Basking in Tuesday’s sunshine and 70°, he sang many times during the day. Later that same day, a mourning dove cooed in a spruce tree, chickadees added their lovely two-note calls, and an American robin joined the serenade with its caroling. However, all went silent when a Cooper’s hawk sailed across the backyard and into my neighbor’s silver maple!

Why do birds sing more frequently in the spring? There’s still much to learn, but the thinking is that the increase in daylight triggers a bird’s thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH steps up the production of sex hormones to prepare birds for the mating season. A big part of successful reproduction is attracting a mate and maintaining a breeding territory — birdsong plays a major role in both activities.

The four songsters mentioned above were year-round residents in the Twin Cities this past winter.  Soon migrants, such as warblers, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds and others will return to add their harmony to the chorus. In fact, I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the season perched on a cattail in a small pond yesterday. Regardless of its purpose, the return of beautiful birdsong is one of spring’s finest gifts.

In Memory of Cathy Borden

Cathy in 1982 during one of our birding trips.

Cathy in 1982 during one of our birding trips.

My friend, Cathy Borden, died this morning.  She was a teacher, writer, wife, mother, sister, friend, gardener and lover of nature.  She enjoyed watching birds and her favorites were black-capped chickadees and American goldfinches.  Cathy gave me my first birding field guide 35 years ago — and though I’ve purchased other books and apps, that fourth edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies” is the one I carry on hikes, trips and weekends at the cabin.  It’s worn, wrinkled from hiking in the rain, and out of date.  In large part, it’s the memories of good times and the inscription written by Cathy on the front page that make it special:

“Beth — Here’s hoping you and I have many happy hours together with our books. I’ll pass on the wish that was given to me: ‘May you live long enough to identify every bird in this book!’                    — Cathy Borden, October 14, 1980”

Cathy didn’t live long enough to identify every bird in Peterson’s field guide, and it really wasn’t about the number of birds we identified anyway.  It was the time spent together walking, listening, thinking, discussing and laughing that mattered.  It was taking in the beauty of nature: the golden light of summer mornings in the marsh while warblers sang in willow thickets; autumn leaves burning with the sun’s fire and the silvery seeds of asters, goldenrod, sunflowers and milkweed; bundling up for winter walks in the fields and woods, where we’d flush ruffed grouse and laugh at being startled; and discovering spring’s first wildflowers and bird nests.

Over the years, career changes, raising families, caring for aging parents and other responsibilities became the focus — particularly for me.  I regret not making nearly enough time for nature walks, discussions over tea, or long phone calls with Cathy.

Cathy loved this simple nature blog.  She was a big supporter from the beginning and often chided me because she wanted me to write more frequently. During this past year, I blogged for Cathy, as one small way to bring her joy while she fought metastatic peritoneal cancer.  So it seems fitting to dedicate my blog to Cathy in gratitude for so many things—support and friendship beginning when I was a first-year science teacher; giving laughter that lightened times of tough challenge; sharing the beauty of nature through walks in every season; and the gift of being with her and holding her hand this morning.  No doubt Cathy’s exploring the celestial fields and woods, and working on her new bird list right now. 

Dedicated to Cathy Borden, October 11, 1951 – January 27, 2016, who loved chickadees, goldfinches, lilacs, lilies of the valley, bumblebees and the sound of crickets chirping in the night.

Pileated Acrobatics

The bush seemed too weak to support the pileated woodpecker’s (Dryocopus pileatus) size and heft.  Catbirds, robins, chipmunks and squirrels easily picked the ruby and purple fruit from the spindly chokecherry branches.  But, the crow-sized woodpecker struggled to alight and balance in the bush.  Its black forehead and mustache stripe identified this pileated as being a female. First, she flew straight into the bush, but the branches bent and sank under her weight.  Next, the woodpecker landed in each of the bur oak trees that flank the chokecherry and then dropped into the bush; still unsuccessful.

pileated5

When we returned the following weekend, she had solved the problem.  Sometimes the pileated used her wings and tail to brace herself — even hanging upside down.  At other times, she seemed to pluck the fruit from midair.  The beauty of her wings unfurled in waves of ivory and black that thwacked the air.  Her red crest glowed like a flame in the bush.

pileated1

pileated4

pileated3

Though pileated woodpeckers primarily eat insects such as carpenter ants and beetles found in bark, they also eat a variety of berries and fruit, and sometimes visit our backyard suet feeder in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

Our deck is just 6 feet from the bush, and if we were silent and still, the woodpecker payed no attention to us.  When I tried to photograph her she flew immediately.  As a result, I had to photograph her through the cabin windows, which reduced photo quality.

Gray Catbird: Mimic Extraordinaire

He’s the musical sort.  He sings with the robins and cardinals; not just his song, but theirs, too.  First he mimicked the robins’ morning song, then he imitated the cardinals and red-eyed vireos.  He blended their calls into his own unique arrangement of a song with many repeated phrases.  I suspected a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) when I heard his “meow”-like call.  Catbirds skulk around in thickets and tangled hedges, so are often hard to see (I haven’t been able to photograph him).  Later, the cardinal pair that frequents our backyard chased him out of the arbor vitae hedge and I spotted him.

He’s a fine looking charcoal-gray bird, about the size of a small American robin, with a black cap and a rusty patch under his tail.  Like brown thrashers and mockingbirds, gray catbirds have the ability to imitate the songs and calls of other birds, creatures and even machines.  Female catbirds sing too, but more softly and infrequently than their mates.

After declaring his territory for three or four days, he began a nighttime serenade, which he continued nightly for three weeks.  At his most vocal, he started singing shortly past midnight.  His song alone filled the night air and varied from melodious bird calls, to squeaks, whistles and other sharp, clear sounds.  He sings to defend his territory and to attract a mate.  Most recently, he’s added part of the American goldfinch’s call to his repertoire. He may mimic fragments of other avian songs too, but I am only certain of the four I’ve mentioned.  He often returns to the hedge to sing at dawn, though no longer with the same intensity and frequency.

Does it matter that catbirds imitate other birds’ songs and calls?   The theory, according to Greg Budney, audio curator at Cornell’s Macauley Library, is that the greater intricacy of a male catbird’s song demonstrates his greater experience with life and survival — and therefore makes him a stronger candidate for a good mate.  There’s an interesting, short video that features a catbird mimicking several songs of other bird species and a chorus frog.  Budney identifies each imitated song and briefly explains his theory.

I’m sure our catbird’s a fine fellow and mate — but I just appreciate hearing his joyful noise in the garden.  Anyone else have catbirds in their yard, garden or woods?

Early Spring

Spring is slow in coming this year; but over the past two weeks, the awakening of life has softened the dingy, post-winter landscape.  Summer bird migrants add their songs to the morning chorus; maples, Canada cherries and other trees bud; chipmunks dart about in the yard; and the early spring bulbs begin to bloom — among them my favorite: the beautiful blue squill.

Siberian Squill (Scilla Siberica)

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica).

Striped Squill (Puschkinis scilloides).

Striped Squill (Puschkinis scilloides).

Crocus buds (Crocus spp 'ladykiller).

Crocus buds (Crocus species ‘Ladykiller’).

Crocus blossoms (Crocus spp 'ladykiller')

Crocus blossoms (Crocus species ‘Ladykiller’)

Red Maple Flowers (Acer rubra).

Red Maple flowers (Acer rubrum).

Canada cherry (Prunus virginiana 'Canada Red') leaves and flower buds

Canada Cherry (Prunus virginiana ‘Canada Red’) leaves and flower buds.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) © T.M. Murray 2014; used with permission.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) © T.M. Murray 2014; used with permission.

White-throated sparrows are migrating north and add a melodious, clear whistling to early spring mornings.  Once you’ve heard the song, it’s easy to remember.  Many people liken it to the phrase, “My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”.  This sparrow has a bright white throat, a black-and-white striped crown and a bright yellow spot between the eyes and bill.  Listen to and watch a white-throated sparrow whistle its lovely, plaintive song.

 

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are out of their dens.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are out of their winter dens.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are building nests.

American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are building nests.

Newly opened Glory-of-the-Snow (Chinodoxa).

Newly opened Glory-of-the-Snow (Chinodoxa).

A patch of striped squill and Siberian squill in our garden.

A patch of Striped Squill and Siberian Squill in our garden.