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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Usual Suspects, Part II

One of the most common birds in suburban North Carolina has an interesting history. Originally, the House Finch was native to the southwest United States, but starting in the early- to mid-1900s, the birds were sold as pets along the Eastern seaboard. In order to escape hefty fines thanks to the Migratory Bird Act, everybody and their brother released their captive House Finches, and they’ve since become a staple of North Carolina feeders. They’re also doing very well in their native range – having been to southern California, I can say that the huge flocks I saw there totally dwarf anything we have out East. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I enjoyed their pleasant warbling song of theirs.

For whatever reason, it took me forever to learn the House Finch's song... but now I hear it everywhere!

Speaking of songs, I’ve always heard that Eastern Bluebird’s song sounds a little bit like an American Robin’s. While this is true, there’s more to it than that. The male Eastern Bluebird sounds like a Robin that’s been at the bar all night drowning in whiskey, and then stumbling home has to slurredly explain to the police officer why he’s missing his pants. Thankfully, our Bluebirds don’t look nearly so decrepit, and they’re a constant feature at our bird feeders. When I catch a nice male in the sunlight, the deep cerulean that refracts is absolutely breathtaking to me, even though I see them almost every day.

So far I've seen 2 out of the 3 bluebird species... just need Mountain to complete the trifecta!

And while we’re on the subject of singing, there’s no bird with a repertoire quite like the Northern Mockingbird. Usually they’ve got random phrases of incongruent sounds, but they’ll regularly mimic the songs of other birds. Thus far, I’ve heard Mockingbirds mimic the songs of things like Summer Tanagers, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and even Common Nighthawk. And Mockers sound just as good as the birds themselves! It’s like if you sang Journey for karaoke and then you sounded so much like Steve Perry they made you a part of the band… oh wait, that totally happened! Mockingbirds are like the random Filipino guys of the bird world.

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird... all they do is make music for us to enjoy." Plus, Gregory Peck is badass in that movie!

This last bird is an odd one for me. They’re often quite secretive, but in the breeding season they can be quite bold, singing from the tops of trees with that signature tremolo of theirs. I remember one time in Ornithology class, we sat a dummy Eastern Towhee out in the open and played its song. A male immediately swooped down to check out his “competition” and puffed up to the size of a softball, prancing around like he owned the place. Confident in his dominance, he flew up into the branches and began singing again.

A bird that's everywhere and nowhere, constantly present but hiding in the shadows - it's the Batman of birds!

I always thought it was weird that these stark black-and-orange birds were closely related to the dingy and streaky American sparrows, but I suppose evolution acts in weird ways. I’m just lucky that I get to enjoy these birds as commonplace, and it always seems strange when people get all up in arms about a Northern Mockingbird that shows up in Wisconsin or Michigan. Then again, I’d be excited for a Spotted Towhee or something, so I suppose it’s all relative. For now, I’ll just enjoy the birds I have.

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