It’s March 1, a beautiful sunny day, late afternoon as time marches on, now past 4 p.m. I’m sitting at the dining room table looking at a book as the NPR news program “All Things Considered” wends its way from the radio in the basement, up through the oak floor to my ears.
But wait. What is that other sound I’m hearing beyond the radio and my thoughts? Could it be? Yes! I didn’t need to step outside to confirm I was hearing sandhill cranes. It’s a call of the wild that once you’ve heard it, at least for me, is etched in your soul forever — like the howling of wolves and the song of the loon.
I hurried to the front door and onto the porch, turning my ears and eyes up toward the blue sky. It was a day of high winds, so I knew the sound would not align with my sight lines; there would be a drift factor. Craning my neck to the east, I found the birds moving in a circle formation, the wind working to push them east. They wanted to head in a northerly direction to their summer breeding grounds, perhaps in Michigan. The journey from their wintering grounds in Florida is a long one.
Their next move was predictable — I’ve been watching cranes for many years — when they stretched out into a long V-formation similar to Canada geese. I guesstimated 40 to 50 birds in the flock. And then they were gone.
I called my wife, Karen, to share the news, as she often does when she calls me to report on the bald eagles that fly past her window at Grand Lake near St. Marys.
The sight and sound of the cranes is one of many rites of spring as they pertain to members of the bird world that I have been observing recently. Late February saw the return of turkey vultures (aka buzzards) to our area. Vultures feed on carrion, which freezes in cold weather, so the birds reside, depending on the severity of our winters to the south of us, perhaps in Kentucky or Tennessee. Our weather is warming, and that means they should have easy pickings.
It is a common sight to see them plying the air space over Lima, looking and smelling for roadkill — rabbits, squirrels and raccoons, to name a few. Take some time to observe their flight habits, and you will marvel at how they stay aloft, be it a calm day or one where they are buffeted by gale-force winds.
About the same time in February that I saw the vultures I heard the soft coo-like — some would say mournful — song of a mourning dove in our backyard. It is a sign that things are in order in the world of nature and that is fine with me, that spring is ever close to knocking on my front door.
So we have the high-pitched, rattling chorus of the cranes on high (to me it is a primitive sound I would expect to hear during the days of Tyrannosaurus rex and Archaeopteryx), no singing from the seven vultures perched in a neighbor’s tall oak trees on a recent afternoon and the song of the dove. So where does that leave us during this transition from winter to spring as it relates to other birds in our area?
How ‘bout what I call that red light bulb bird, the male cardinal? One need not see the bird to feel a sense of joy, of optimism in a new day. No, it would be the loud cheery song of the cardinal. If the “what cheer, what cheer” phonetic sound of that song doesn’t do something for your spirit, even on a gray day, all I can say is …
In the end, what matters is how the less striking but still beautiful female cardinal responds to efforts by the male to woo her into his love nest.
If you are paying attention to the avian world, and there has been no shortage of recent nice weather to do that, you might hear other birds getting in on the act. The high-pitched but not melodic call and rapid-fire drumming of the male red-bellied woodpecker is a signal to females of the species: “Hey ladies, I’m the birdman of your dreams!”
Large flocks of robins were hanging around during the snow-covered days of February. With no worms to dig for, they satisfied their appetites by feeding on fruit from hawthorne trees and honeysuckles. But it is the melodic “cheer-up, cheer, cheer, cheer-up” song of a male robin in early March that makes me take notice of my part of the world. They will be ramping up their behavior with each passing day.
The avian chorus we look forward to, made up collectively by many species of passerines, known as perching birds, will be a wonderful part of our days, from dawn to dusk. Slivers of joy.
Honking skeins of Canada geese announce their presence as they make their way over town and country, eventually setting up homesteads adjacent to area waterways. They can be heard pretty much year-round in our neck of the woods, but I don’t know: Is it me or just my imagination that notices there is a different, perhaps more intense character to their honking this time of year? How do you hear them?
In recent years I’ve become accustomed to the calls of the barred owls that live in our neighborhood. The phonetic “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all,” day or night is something I’ve not heard in a few weeks. Have they moved elsewhere? Did something happen to them? Maybe they will announce themselves when they start raising a new generation. I will be glad to hear the owls even though they don’t cook for me.
If not for being a naturalist, i.e. a longtime student of nature, I suspect I would still take notice and enjoy the benefits that birds via their songs and calls bring to my life. It goes back to a childhood with my late father, Al, instilling in all of his children the admonition: “Learn to take an interest in things.”
It can sometimes be difficult to hear the bird songs above the sounds that people create as we go about our lives — cars, loud motorcycles, jackhammers, etc. — but all it takes is an effort on our part to open our ears to that chorus of cranes.
Phil Hugo lives in Lima.