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If a bird sings in the forest but you can’t see it …

March 27, 2019

People gather the most information about their surroundings visually. I realized this when an old dog of mine lost both his sight and hearing and it hardly slowed him down. If I were blind and deaf, I would have been in terrible trouble, but Al (my beloved corgi) did not gather the most important information about his surroundings by looking or by listening. He understood the world through smell. I couldn’t even imagine understanding the world through scent.

For humans, sight is primary. If you smelled something in your home (good or bad), I’m pretty sure you would want to find that thing so you could get a look at it and confirm for yourself what it was or where it was. Scent alerts, but vision explains.

But watch a dog some time. If she sees something interesting, and she doesn’t immediately eat it, she will probably give it a very good sniff. Dogs gather the richest information through scent. For them, sight alerts, but scent explains. 

I was reminded of this today while sitting for over an hour at the runoff from the McGovern Cascade hoping to see a Carolina wren. I wasn’t hoping to find one, I found one right away. I just couldn’t see him. Carolina wrens are sprightly little brown birds with booming voices. As soon as I arrived, I knew he was there, but knowing was not at all satisfying. I wanted to see him!

The reason this blog post is not just about Carolina wrens is that I never did get to see him, so I can’t show him to you. But I know quite a bit about him just by hearing his song. For example, I know that he’s a he. In North America, only male birds sing. (If you are deep in the weeds — and I’ve been there — this assertion isn’t as rock solid as it once seemed, but for the most part, only boys sing.)

I know he was probably near his nest. Male birds sing to claim territory and this is spring. That beautiful song is really a threat: this is mine, approach at your peril. His tune is more or less the same as every other male of his species. Only he sings it his own way. That’s because birds are not born knowing their song. They have a bit of it encoded in their genes, but to make it sound right, our baby boy has to learn from his father and from the birds around him. 

Because of this, birds have regional dialects. I hear this most readily in cardinals because they are everywhere and bellow at the top of their lungs each sunrise giving you plenty of unavoidable opportunity to compare songs when you travel. 

This was not my first failure to photograph a Carolina wren. I have failed to photograph them over and over. But I realized that perhaps showing everyone a Carolina wren wouldn’t be quite as useful as letting you listen to one because you are almost guaranteed to hear one when you are in the Park; laying eyes on one is really a matter of luck. 

They are bold little birds who hop around looking for insects whether you are within sight or not, but they are small and reddish-brown and easy to miss. The song is not. You will hear them. But instead of singing from an open branch or the top of a tree like a normal bird, Carolina wrens sing from a sheltered branch low or in the middle of a tree using volume to compensate for poor acoustics. This makes them maddeningly hardest to find when they are most obviously right there. 

Carolina wrens have two songs that they sing interchangeably. They are approximated by the words “tea kettle” and “cheery.” Carolinas will sing either and will switch from one to the other. I have often wondered if they are really the same song; when they say “cheery” perhaps they are really saying “tea kettle” so fast we can’t make out all the syllables. Birds can pump out notes amazingly fast.

This is the tea kettle song


This is the cheery song


And this is two birds singing back and forth, one singing tea kettle and the other cheery. I don’t know if it’s significant, but cheery always overrides tea kettle in this duel.


I don’t want to leave you with the idea that female birds are silent. Most birds have both songs and calls. The calls are usually much simpler, a single note, a grunt, a wheeze, a titter. They are genetically encoded. Both males and females call.

Calls are not usually musical and birds use calls for a variety of purposes. A blue jay’s squawk is a call and often communicates danger. A flock of warblers will continually chip to one another. Cardinals also chip. Carolina wrens, and all wrens, have calls so guttural and obnoxious that they are referred to as scolds.