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Black-capped Chickadee. Photo:<a href="">Matt MacGillivray</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Black-capped Chickadee. Photo:Matt MacGillivray, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

How birds talk: Whallonsburg will host bird language expert

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We're just about two weeks away from the first day of spring, but if you look out the window there's still lots of snow and ice across our region. Birds are starting to return, though, and Connor Stedman is watching, and listening.

Stedman is a lifelong naturalist with years of experience sharing nature awareness and traditional skills with students of all ages. He's the director of the Vermont Wilderness School and teaches classes in bird language, wild crafting, and land stewardship around the Northeast. He'll give a lecture tonight at 7:00 at the Whallonsburgh Grange Hall titled "Bird Language through the Seasons" and then he'll lead a field class tomorrow, trekking outside to listen for winter bird language and watch for behavior.

During the lecture he'll review the basics of bird language and explore how birds journey through the seasons, and how they strategize to survive, especially during a tough winter like this one. He spoke this morning with Todd Moe.

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Naturalist Connor Stedman. Photo courtesy Connor Stedman
Naturalist Connor Stedman. Photo courtesy Connor Stedman
Todd Moe: I love that sound of the owls in mid-January on a crisp evening when there's no wind. You can here that sound off in the woods, off in the distance. And it's amazing to think that even in mid-January it might be ten below and as you say, you're hearing this Great Horned Owl, maybe, out in the woods with a love call.

Connor Stedman: It's an amazing thing – a little promise of spring months before spring actually arrives. Another thing we're seeing around now in the songbirds is a shift from their winter patterns of movement.

There are a small number of songbirds that are year-round residents in the Champlain Valley. They don't migrate, but they do shift their use of the landscape significantly from the breeding season to the winter. In the mid to late fall those songbirds will entirely abandon the feeding territories that they used in the previous growing season, and they'll group up in mixed-species winter flocks.

You'll see Chickadees and Juncos and Downy Woodpeckers and several other species who are winter residents. They'll all gang up and travel together around the landscape – just wandering in search of food together. It's a strategy of many eyes are better suited to find scarce food resources now than those birds would be on their own.

TM: A couple of Saturdays ago it was a mild, mild day and I was out for a walk and I thought I heard a Phoebe. And so I said to my cohost, Martha Foley, the next morning that I thought I heard a Phoebe, and she looked at me kind of surprised. A listener told me it was probably a Chickadee mating call, which is very similar. Then I was going through some song lyrics, and there's a song or a poem about the Phoebe-like call of the Chickadee this time of year.

CS: Each species of songbird has a range of vocalizations that they make. And those different vocalizations actually express some very different things in combination with different body language and behavior (hear the variety of Chickadee calls). So for the Chickadee, the classic call that people are used to hearing with Chickadees, that can have a range of meaning depending on the behavior and body language of the bird. It can be a companion call between multiple Chickadees or other species in the winter who are feeding and foraging together. You might hear soft, gentle call between multiple Chickadees as they travel and feed. It also can be an alarm call if it's sharper and more intense and has more "dee dee dees" at the end.

Downy Woodpecker. Photo: <a href="">Nature Shutterbug</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reseved
Downy Woodpecker. Photo: Nature Shutterbug, Creative Commons, some rights reseved
At about this time of year several years ago, I was walking on a ridge in central Western Massachusetts, and I heard a long string call from a little stand of hemlocks in front of me. It was sharp and intense and lots of "dee dee dees." At first, I thought I'd spooked the Chickadees. Then I slowed down how I was walking, and there was snow cover on the ground so I couldn't be too quiet, it was all crunchy.

I walked up more slowly, and two Chickadees flew out of the little copse of hemlock. And I walked into that hemlock and I felt a burning sensation on the side of my face. And I turned towards where it felt like that sensation was coming from and about 18 inches away from my face there was a Saw-Whet Owl...They are very small predator, very dangerous to Chickadees and other small winter songbirds, and it was standing right there looking at me with a stunned look on its face like "where did you come from?" so what I thought was the Chickadees alarming at me was actually a very intense alarm at a very dangerous predator followed by them fleeing.

So that is one thing that the Chickadee alarm can mean when it's accompanied by stressed body language and when it sounds sharper and more focused. But the "fee-bee" vocalization of the Chickadee is, just like you said, their song. And that's usually a melodic and unique voice that each songbird has individually that is a signal to other members of its species saying either "come mate with me," if it's the opposite sex or "this is my territory, stay away," if it's the same sex and so the same voice is communicating two different things.

Junco. Photo: <a href="">PutneyPics</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Junco. Photo: PutneyPics, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Chickadees are one the songbirds where both males and females will sing. In some species it's just the males, there's a few species globally where just the female sings but in Chickadees they both sing. So you can hear some really lovely duetting between male and females at this time, starting even in January but especially at this time of year and heading into spring.

TM: What do you expect to hear this weekend in the Champlain valley as you take folks around on a field trip? This has been tough winter, lots of snow, lots of ice, and lots of bitter cold. What sort of an impact do you think that's going to have on what you're going to hear?

CS: Yeah that is definitely going to have an impact. [On Saturday] we're going to do a combination of field observation and also some tracking and reading the landscape because there's a lot of ecological stories going on right now and they are all related to how this in many ways is the starvation time of year for the whole food web.

Deer for example have exhausted their preferred winter food sources and are eating less and less favorable woody growth that they can find, and in addition the snow conditions are often such that its very awkward for deer to travel through the landscape when there is a thick crust on the top, they will posthole through and sometimes they will even cut themselves on the ice when they walk through it. Deer don't even have the ability to maintain their weight throughout the winter, they are essentially starving all winter long and they are just trying to make it to April when that first flush of green growth starts to come out.

So we will be looking at what the deer are doing, we will be looking at those changes in bird behavior from more mixed-flock to more territorial and seeing if we can find some individual songbirds who are starting to establish feeding territories for the spring. We will also be looking into what the aerial predators are doing right now because there are raptors who overwinter here, some of them shift from further north and some of them stay for winter and they will have an effect on the bird behavior as well. So it will be a combination of wildlife ecology that we will be looking at in the field on Saturday but focused on bird language and what stories the birds are telling right now.

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