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Bird Migration, Songs, Calls, and Color

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Spring arrives in the southern Appalachians with new colors as resident species are joined by the arrival migrants to fill the forest with new sights and sounds. A flash of yellow reveals a hooded warbler, a blaze of red a scarlet tanager. New sounds also announce bird migration to our neighborhood. Greetings of a bright “cheerio” or the hopeful echoes of “ee-o-ee-o-lay” alert us to the arrival of less flashy migrants like the red-eyed vireo and wood thrush.

Migration is one of the great spectacles of the natural world, and birders all over the world are welcoming the return of “their birds”. But of course, the migrant birds breeding in the forests surrounding our house are no more a North Carolina bird than they are a bird of the Caribbean, Central America, or South America. The same pattern holds true worldwide and billions of birds move between the continents. Because migrants are dependent on wintering and breeding habitats found on different continents, they face significant threats and conservation challenges, and many migrant bird species are declining.

Migration is one of the great spectacles of the natural world, and birders all over the world are welcoming the return of “their birds”.

Male Northern parula sings to attract a mate and defend his territory. Credit: Tim Carstens.

Identifying Birds by Song Saves Birds

World Migratory Bird Day, celebrated May 8th, is an annual event dedicated to raising awareness of migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to conserve them.

The theme of this year’s event was “Sing, Fly, Soar -Like a bird!” The focus on the song may act as a reminder that bird songs allows birders to identify unseen birds, which allows us to more accurately count populations of birds, particularly in forested habitats where birds may be hard to spot. On the same day, the eBird Global Big Day is a citizen event aimed at using citizen science to better understand global bird populations. Much of the data generated by such efforts will be collected by birders who identify birds by their songs. Data documenting bird abundance is extremely valuable in a time when many bird populations are declining.

Data documenting bird abundance is extremely valuable in a time when many bird populations are declining.

The spectacle of bird migration, for one of us, led to a career in bird biology. And, for our students, the arrival of new birds leads to the discovery of a new world of sights and sounds. By encouraging students to recognize bird songs, we hope that we’ve added another dimension of enjoyment to their hikes, as they recognize the diversity of life present, and recognize that those songs, calls, and colors have meaning to the birds.

Signals and Communication

As the spring progresses into summer, we will hear the chipped warning calls of parents to each other, or the begging calls of new fledglings demanding attention from parents. As summer turns to fall we notice the ebb of songs in late summer and the increase of contact calls in the fall as migrants fly through the night to get to their wintering grounds. Fall migrants that stop by our neighborhood might look drabber as they have already molted into their winter plumage. The sights and sounds of birds not only help us locate and identify bird species but also give us insight into their inner worlds. We can track the progress of breeding birds as they arrive, attract a mate, raise a brood, fledge young and prepare for winter. 

The sights and sounds of birds not only help us locate and identify bird species but also give us insight into their inner worlds. 

Bird Talk: An Exploration of Avian Communication examines research on bird behavior, recognizing that bird songs, calls, and flashes of color are not merely things to be enjoyed by people, but they are signals, and the birds are engaging in communication as they navigate their surprisingly complex social lives. Ultimately, we hope that learning to recognize birds by song and recognizing that may encourage people to care more about bird conservation and ensure that the sights and sounds of birds can be enjoyed by generations to come.

*Featured photo: Two tree swallows. Credit: Dulcey Lima.

Cover Image of Bird Talk.
Read more about this book.

Barbara Ballentine is Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Western Carolina University. She has published articles on song production and mate choice.

Jeremy Hyman is Professor in the Department of Biology at Western Carolina University, where he teaches ornithology and animal behavior. He has published numerous articles on bird behavior and is the author of the children’s book Bird Brains.

Consultant Editor Mike Webster is the Robert G. Engel Professor of Ornithology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University and Director of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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