Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Love Song of H. Wren

The house wren singing at first light is looking for love.

Mating turkey vultures (RE Berg-Andersson)
From the smallest wren to the largest turkey vulture, this time of year in New Jersey - late April into May - is when males use particular tactics to attract a mate so they can follow their internal instincts and perpetuate the species.

The house wren uses song, a cascading series of notes repeated again and again, sometimes for hours, from the tallest trees. The song will bring over curious females while warning off any challenging males.

We humans can put words to some bird songs -- "Drink your TEA" (eastern towhee), "Who cooks for you?" (barred owl), "teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" (Carolina wren) come to mind. The mockingbird and brown thrasher mimic the songs of other birds - they are fine indicators of what can be heard in a particular patch.

Some birds use "song" that doesn't sound like song to us. The white-breasted nuthatch's high-pitched nasal "hee-hee-hee-hee-heh" is song, at least to another nuthatch. The hoots of a great horned owl are song.

The wren in my yard has discovered the nest box I hang every year in my apple tree, now in glorious bloom. So the wren is not only trying to draw a mate with its "Look at me!" song, it is also trying to protect prime breeding territory from another male. So the song is also saying, "This is mine!"

Many birds go to extremes to attract a mate. The American woodcock - an otherwise not very showy bird that spends its life skulking in the brush, almost invisible because of its mottled brown coloring that blends in with the fallen leaves, probing mud for earthworms with its long bill - attracts mates by calling out a nasal peent at dawn or at dusk, and then hurling itself high in the air, sometimes 20 or 30 feet up, before returning to the launching pad. The male that can jump the highest wins. Females will fly in to investigate and ultimately there will be a pairing, mating, young.

White-throated sparrow, not in breeding colors yet
(Margo D. Beller)
At dawn in my yard lately, I have been hearing the love/territorial songs of robins, cardinals, titmice, the house wren and chipping sparrows, which make a long, dry trill. Sometimes I'll hear the grunts of fish crows, and the "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of one of the few remaining white-throated sparrows. These winter birds get a bright white throat and "eyebrow" at breeding time with a bright yellow spot near their eyes, but there will come a point when they will fly north to nest. The one (or two) still in my yard remains for the feeders but usually these birds take off when the catbirds arrive.

Like the woodcock, many birds use aerial display. Hummingbirds fly huge loop-de-loops to show a potential mate that his genes will make bigger, stronger young - very important in a species where, after the mating, the male takes off and the female does the nest building, child rearing and feeding alone.

Sounds like some humans, doesn't it?

People and birds are similar in that way, the males dressing their best, showing a potential mate he is bigger, stronger, richer than the other guy. If he attracts a female's attention and they "date" he will offer her gifts to solidify the bond - and get him what he wants. He offers, she accepts.

The main difference between birds and humans is a bird's mating season is only for a limited time each year (and doesn't take place online or in a bar). While pairs of some birds are monogamous until one dies - mute swans, cardinals and Canada geese come to mind - most birds stay "monogamous" only during the breeding and nesting seasons. Once the young are large enough to fly and feed themselves, the adult pair separates, going south to their winter territories in the late summer or early autumn.

However, like the hummingbird, many the males of many species mate and move on, trying to mate with as many females as possible. In the case of the redwing blackbird, they may have multiple mates at once. The object here is continuing the species, making more blackbirds, hummingbirds, turkey vultures and house wrens.

This morning I sat on the patio to listen to the wren sing. He flew from the apple tree to a high branch of an oak to a higher branch of an elm. But then I saw something interesting - the male called from my right and another wren, the female, flew into the nest box on my left. So the male was successful with his song and now the singing is to fight off potential rivals!

This year's house wren, singing (Margo D. Beller)
As the female adds sticks to the box for her nest and lays her eggs, the male's song will become a little softer and won't last as long, at least around her. He'll still do his "Stay away, guys" warning but the softer song will be a song of reassurance to his mate that he is nearby, watching, protecting. When the young are born the song will go very soft, so as not to alert potential predators there are vulnerable young for the taking. But he'll still sing, to reassure her he's still around, at least for now.

Different birds sing for different reasons, if you consider the hoots and howls of an owl or the grunts of a turkey vulture or double-crested cormorant to be singing.

Same with people. When I call or text MH while I am away from home, such as hiking in the woods listening to birds, I am reassuring him. I don't sing all that well, so it's the next best thing.