A Bird’s Tale

Our Backyard Discovery Diary: Mockers, Crow Rattles, and Woodcock Twitters

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 7:45am

Paying close attention to the backyard continues to yield some bird surprises for many people, as evidenced by some interesting posts we’ve noticed lately on various social media platforms. Over the past week, we’ve seen photos or videos of broad-winged hawks and barred owls in Maine backyards, an American woodcock on a nest, a color-banded American kestrel in West Gardiner, and a white-breasted nuthatch gathering nesting material. 

And that’s just a very tiny fraction of what people are noticing and sharing.

We ourselves did a double-take a few days ago when we looked out in a bush in our backyard and saw a northern mockingbird quietly sitting there. Of course, we’ve seen lots of mockingbirds in different places over the years; just five miles or so away from our here we see them quite regularly. But in the 15 years we’ve been at our present home, we’ve seen a mockingbird only twice before. Each time, we saw the bird only for a day or two before it apparently found that our neighborhood just doesn’t have what it takes to convince a mockingbird to stay. 

This time was no different but while it was here, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing it, despite the fact that it didn’t do much except sit quietly in the sun most of the day. Mockingbirds are thought to be essentially non-migratory. Does some portion of the population migrate south from northern latitudes and then return in the spring? Or do some young birds just wander around in the spring looking for a new place to call home that isn’t already claimed by another mocker? We’ll let you know if we see it again here or find one somewhere in town.

Another interesting observation we have had the past week is of a different sort. Like everywhere, we have lots of crows around. We had noticed them starting to pick up sticks for nests some time ago and presumably some may be laying or even incubating eggs. But just in the last week while on our daily social-distance walks about town, we have noticed multiple crows from places quite distant from each other, giving unusual warbly rattle calls. We inquired with our friend, crow expert Kevin McGowan, as to what it might mean. He said it had something to do with what he called “intra-family bond maintenance” since crows maintain bonds between parents and older offspring in sometimes complicated ways. We’ll keep listening and maybe we’ll even try to get a sound recording if we get lucky, so we can share the sound with Kevin and others.

Last evening we walked a little farther than usual from home just as it was getting dark and discovered the wonderful high-pitched twittering of a male American woodcock high in the air doing his mating dance. Later we came upon a patch of field sandwiched between a cemetery and the houses along the road where he could be heard giving his nasal “peent” call from the ground. We hope he has found a suitable spot where he can attract a female who will be able to  find a place nearby to hide her ground-nest and raise her chicks.

We hope all of you are making lots of discoveries close to home too!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).