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Blane Klemek column: Songs of birds makes for joyful experiences

Far and wide, birds are singing in the hills, grasslands, forests and wetlands everywhere. They are singing in the treetops, from fence posts, from utility wires and in flight. They sing, they call, they inspire and they delight us. What would a world be like without wild birds to listen to?

Tread upon the wild lands or the shaded sidewalks of most any town and you will likely hear birds singing their individual songs with such enthusiasm that it's hard to not join in. A visit to wetlands and woodlands will treat our ears to medleys of songs that leave the average human listeners hard-pressed to differentiate one birdsong from another.

Yellow-headed blackbirds and red-winged blackbirds not only compete for territory but, I like to imagine, space for songs to travel through as well. Those same wetlands and adjacent uplands contain the wondrous songs of marsh wrens, common yellow throats, yellow warblers, song sparrows and many others.

As musical as birds' songs are, they are not, as much as we would like to believe, produced for the birds' individual pleasure -- or ours, for that matter. While it is true that not all songs and calls of birds are linked to territorial and mating-related activities, many vocalizations are, especially during the springtime breeding season. Male American robins, Baltimore orioles, red-winged blackbirds, house wrens and countless other birds are singing their hearts out to attract mates, as well as to defend the boundaries of their respective territories.

For instance, male red-eyed vireos, sometimes called preacher birds because of their ceaseless singing, sings all day long from woodland treetops. As pleasant as it sounds to our ears, to the ears of other male vireos the song is a warning to "Stay away, this area's mine." The same is true about meadowlarks singing from fence posts in the open prairie grasslands, or rose-breasted grosbeaks, gray catbirds and American robins singing in our backyards. And the list goes on.

Increased singing activity in many male birds is linked to elevated testosterone levels in their bloodstreams. The length of daylight triggers this physiological change. Also affected are specific territorial behaviors. But interestingly, not all full-chorus singing is exclusive to springtime. A few birds sing in the fall, too. Male European starlings and English (house) sparrows experience higher testosterone levels in autumn during their fall molts and actually begin claiming nesting sites. Other birds have also been observed singing in the fall, including song sparrows, white-crowned sparrows and American robins.

Typically, however, singing is conducted in the spring. And all that singing leads to eventual bonding, breeding, nest building and raising offspring. Right now in wetlands, fields, forests and backyards, birds are actively building nests, laying and incubating eggs and caring for young.

So far this spring I have delighted in, once again, the wonderful music of singing meadowlarks and bobolinks. I've already come to distinguish in my own backyard from others of his kind, this year's dominant male Baltimore oriole through his beautiful and very distinctive song repertoire. I recently became reacquainted with the vastly different songs of several species of sparrows, including song sparrows, chipping, savannah and clay-colored sparrows.

On another recent stroll along the township road I live beside, I marveled at the flute-like songs of veeries, Swainson's thrushes and hermit thrushes--easily three of my top 10 woodland birdsongs. Other pleasing birdsongs that I often hear on this springtime walk include those of black-throated green warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ruby-crowned kinglets and American goldfinches.

And who, lest they have never walked the sprawling prairie grasslands west of the Minnesota's forests, could forget the sweet and mellow music of the upland sandpiper? During my blissful summers on the prairies of North Dakota, I was endlessly captivated by this bird's whistles and call-notes. Described by one observer that I once read in a book about shorebirds, "The calls of the upland sandpiper are unmistakable . . . a bubbling 'pip-pip-pip-pip' along with the beautiful 'whr-r-reep, whreeeow' whistle."

Further explained, with respect to the upland sandpiper's enchanting courtship whistle, it is often described as a "wolf whistle," though much mellower and drawn-out and bubbly sounding. If you have never heard this particular whistle, think about the silly whistle a man might whistle in admiration of a pretty woman. As such, if you can whistle the wolf whistle, then you have effectively mimicked the upland sandpiper's courtship whistle.

The meadowlark? Indeed, how could one forget this meadow music? The flute-like, warbled songs carry well throughout the countryside, and on calm mornings and evenings one can easily hear singing meadowlarks from a "country mile" away. And like most singing birds, it is the male meadowlark that's doing the performing.

As well, the meadowlark will let you know he's about to take to flight as he emits three or more well-spaced whistles before departing from his perch. Once airborne, he flies his characteristic flight that's marked by rapid wing-beats and intermittent glides.

Undeniably, it's all around us to see, hear and appreciate: the jingling songs of wrens, the soothingly familiar robin songs, the repeated sing-song phrases of brown thrashers and gray catbirds, the amazingly complex songs of brown-headed cowbirds and the soft warbles of eastern bluebirds.

Springtime is a good time. The dizzying assortment of birdsongs from near countless birds makes for joyful experiences to be sure -- it's the annual renewal that takes place right before our eyes and ears as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at