Few things in life are more pleasurable to me as listening to the calls of the wild. Whether it be the distinctive territorial tap-tap-tapping call of the yellow bellied sapsucker as he pecks his sounding board, the whirring wing-buzz of a ruby-throated hummingbird darting this way and that or the beautiful flute song of the Swainson's Thrush coming from somewhere deep in the woods, there's never a dull listening moment in the wild places and backyards surrounding us.
Springtime is a wonderfully noisy period as animals of all kinds vocalize during the breeding season. Without a doubt, wildlife viewing is greatly enhanced when one "tunes in." This is one of the best times to hear the songs and calls of songbirds, frogs, cranes and rails, blackbirds and their kin, waterfowl of all kinds and a host of others too numerous to mention here.
Learning the sounds that wildlife produce is as interesting and rewarding as actually observing them. Many people, including myself, delight in being able to identify the owners of various songs and vocalizations. In fact, in many instances, it is all a person gets to "see." Anyone who has attempted to observe species of birds in the leafed-out canopy of the forest, particularly woodland warblers, knows how important a role songs and calls play toward identification.
Indeed, wildlife biologists often use various animal vocalizations and sounds as a way to measure species abundance. Drumming counts of ruffed grouse is a prime example. In this case, the observer uses the number of times individual drumming male grouse are heard along established 10-mile routes as an index of the current springtime breeding population. The observer stops every mile, gets out of the vehicle, and listens for exactly four minutes at each stop. All drumming ruffed grouse heard during each four-minute stop are documented.
In other examples: sharp-tailed grouse leksurveys and prairie chicken booming ground surveys, while not requiring auditory cues for conducting population counts, is made easier when the observer is familiar with what these birds sound like when they perform their annual breeding displays. On calm mornings throughout the open landscapes where these native prairie grouse inhabit, the assorted clucks, coos and cackles -- and even the rattling tail-feathers or stamping feet of sharptails -- can and do help one locate the whereabouts of these amazing birds.
During my graduate research on bird diversity on the Great Plains of North Dakota, I assessed the presence and absence of certain "secretive" wetland associated species of birds, or those birds otherwise more often heard than seen. I used a game caller with the birds' recorded vocalizations played aloud alongside a wetland's edge in order to induce their vocal responses, thus their presence.
The birds I surveyed in this manner included Virginia rail, yellow rail, sora, American bittern and pied-billed grebe. Many more of my "observations" were exclusively auditory too. For example, marsh and sedge wrens, common yellowthroats and several species of grassland sparrows were more often recorded on my survey data sheets as present by merely knowing their unique songs and calls.
One can also identify wildlife by other sounds that are not necessarily exclusive to the vocal cords. For instance, a raven has a recognizable sounding wing beat, and so does a northern shoveler. A beaver gnawing on a limb as they eat the bark is another distinctive sound. As mentioned earlier, male woodpeckers, which employ their beaks to rap on trees and other material, natural or otherwise (sometimes the siding of a house or a television antenna!), do so as territorial messages to other males in the area. With practice, one can quickly identify which species of woodpecker is making which rat-a-tat sound.
If you spend enough time in the woods and river bottomlands, the shuffling gait of foraging ruffed grouse can be easily differentiated from the hop-scratch sounds of feeding towhees in the understory, or the hop-shuffle-hop sound of a gray squirrel, or the deliberate footfalls of an approaching deer. These sounds, too, while not vocal, provide the listener with much knowledge and enjoyment.
I hope my hearing never fails me. So far I've been lucky. This past week alone I've listened with pleasure to the tinkling songs of bobolinks and marsh wrens. I've been awakened by the unmistakable yodel of a loon across the lake. I've listened to the buzz song of the clay-colored sparrow, the sweet melody of the western meadowlark, the incredible trumpet-like call of trumpeter swans and the exotic croaks and rattles of sandhill cranes.
Truly, I have gleaned untold satisfaction from the sounds of the outdoors, vocal or not. Winnowing snipe, peeping spring peepers, warbling bluebirds, diving waterfowl, tail-slapping beavers, yapping coyotes, upland sandpiper wolf whistles, drumming ruffed grouse ... the list is endless.
It is a grand time, to be sure, while listening to the calls of the wild as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
For those wishing to improve their wildlife listening and identification skills, recordings of bird songs and calls, as well as other animals and insects, can be purchased and are available on audiocassette tapes and CDs.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org