One of the pleasures of spring is sleeping with the windows open. As I drift off each night, I'm often soothed by the gentle drawl of a barred owl -- "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all."
Too few hours later I'm awakened by the dawn chorus. A robin gets the alarm started at about 5:15. Within minutes a cardinal whistles, and as dawn glimmers in the east, a phoebe calls its own name.
Sometimes it's a house wren that first rouses me from sleep. His loud explosive song is an appropriate first call. He spits out a jumble of notes so fast they almost seem to stumble over each other. Then a turkey gobbles. A catbird mews. A downy woodpecker whinnies. A towhee invites me to, "Drink your tea!"
From the edge of the yard a Carolina wren belts out a series of triplets: "Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle!" At wood's edge a hooded warbler sings, "To-we, to-we, to-we-tee-o." And from deeper in the woods, a wood thrush yodels, "Ee-o-lay."
It's spring roll call. I lay in bed until all my old friends are present and accounted for. Only after I've identified all the members of the chorus do I feel obliged to rise.
Every year, however, I hear a song I don't recognize. It's always familiar, but I just can't pull its name from that corner of my brain where "bird songs and their artists" are stored. What makes this annual puzzle especially frustrating is that I know it from many places -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Oklahoma.
So when I hear this mystery bird, I listen more intently. Since it's new for the year, the singer is obviously a migrant. The song is complicated and musical; I can't put it into words. I listen more carefully, grateful for a reason to lie in bed just a bit longer. Then I notice that each note is paired -- and the light bulb comes on. Indigo bunting.
I should recognize the song immediately if only because I go through this same routine each spring. I just need to remember that the song that I can never remember is the indigo bunting's. What makes this mental block even more frustrating is that indigo buntings are among the most common breeding birds on the ridge.
Upon recognizing the song, a flood of images flows past my mind's eye.
A little about the birds
Several key field marks help identify indigo buntings. About the size of a goldfinch and deep metallic blue in color, males are striking. Indigo blue is darker than bluebird blue and more striking than blue jay blue. And as a favor to birdwatchers everywhere, male indigos sing from the tops of the highest trees, often from exposed dead branches. Scan the treetops in the direction of the song, and a spot of indigo quickly stands out.
The secretive females, on the other hand, stay hidden in the underbrush where their drab brown plumage serves them well. The indigo nests I have found have been at eye level or below in blackberry and multiflora rose thickets. The female weaves a cup of dried grasses and bark strips and lines it with fine grasses, rootlets and, occasionally, animal fur.
She lays three or four unmarked white eggs and incubates them for about 12 days. The chicks remain in the nest for about 12 days after hatching. Mom tends to the business of raising the kids, while dad defends the territory from intruders and watches for predators. After the chicks fledge, the male helps feed the young. If the female starts a second nest, the male assumes complete responsibility for the first brood.
Suddenly, as if to break my concentration and urge me to get up, the male indigo flies to the top of the apple tree in the back yard and sings right outside the bedroom window. Mystery solved, my conscience translates the notes into words: "Rise and shine you lazy oaf."
XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org