This past year-and-a-half I have birded nearly every day, carefully observing bird migrations, habitat preferences, mating rituals, and nesting activities. I have learned many new songs and calls, as well as having added a few new birds to my life list. All of this while walking the paths along and around the South Platte River in Littleton, Colorado. I have daily notes of the birds and plants, weather, time of day, and the direction of the trails I walked.
Even now as I bird a new habitat, I notice not only a lack of bird species, but also the lack of singing and calling by the birds that are here; with the exception of Blue Jays and Magpies who have to announce themselves repeatedly.
This has made me formulate a theory which may not be correct, but seems somewhat logical. I am spotting Say’s Phoebes, Spotted Towhees, House Finches, Scrub Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Western Tanagers, and Catbirds in the dry scrubland behind my house. These birds have very distinctive calls and songs during mating and nesting seasons. Now however, they are silent as they flit through trees and shrubs. So here’s my theory: during mating season they are calling and singing most of the time to attract mates and establish territories. Their plumage gets smarter and more colorful during this season and makes them easier to spot. This single-mindedness on their part, allows me to get quite close to them before they fly off, and then it is usually not too far from where they started.
As the season progresses through mating and into nesting, the birds are still singing and calling, but they become quite still and silent if I approach their nest site. Once the eggs have hatched and the nestlings need to be fed, the adults are too busy to spend time singing, their plumage becomes a bit ragged, and they are so engaged in filling the gaping mouths of their youngsters, that they fly indiscriminately across the trails and are quite easy to spot. Also, if I listen carefully, I hear the babies’ high-pitched, insistent cries.
By mid-August most of the baby birds have fledged and are out of their nests, but they still beg for food from their parents. At this point the fledglings are the same size as their parents, with plumage that is usually very mottled and little fluffy all over. Balanced precariously on branches, the fledglings call for food. Their parents answer and still bring a juicy grub or a bit of bug to them, but less often.
Now it is September and some birds remain in family groups, like Magpies and Jays. However, birds like Phoebes and Towhees are extremely skittish and I have to be especially stealthy to get a look at them through my binoculars, as they flush immediately if I get near them. I am guessing it is because now that they are not defending territory or trying to attract a mate, they are more focused on their foraging efforts and their safety. Adults and young-of-the-year resemble each other more closely at this time of year. Adult birds are in fall plumage which is often duller and less defined, and youngsters have lost their baby feathers and have grown new, more distinctive feathers, making them harder to identify from a distance.
Having watched birds so carefully has taught me that being a bird is as complex as being a human.