So many birds, and so many things to learn
(published 9-16-04)

It happened again. On August 20, a bird made my day.

When I least expected it, smack in the dog days of summer, a Carolina wren visited my yard. A first! And like it so often does in birding, luck played a big role.

The lucky part is that I happened to be outside. It was one of those unseasonably cool days last month so I took my coffee and newspaper out on the patio. I was keeping an eye on our bird feeders, of course, but not expecting anything unusual. Then I heard it—a strikingly loud and distinctive song. I knew instantly that I’d never heard it before, at least not in the backyard.

I really should have recognized that sound. I’ve seen and heard Carolina wrens many times while vacationing in South Carolina, where it’s the state bird. But on my patio that morning I guess I was too surprised to think. I needed to see the singer. Fortunately, after an agonizing minute or two, the wren popped into view.

When the bird moved on—it never went near my feeders—I went inside and grabbed my “Birding by Ear” CDs. I wanted to hear that song again. That’s when I learned something interesting. The narrator said that the Carolina wren is one of the few birds that sing year-round. Come to think of it, it did seem odd to hear a bird singing like that in mid-August. Later I looked in a few books to find out more. Carolina wrens are not migratory, which I didn’t know, and the Chicago area is about as far north as they ever go. Like mockingbirds, another “southern” species, they are said to be turning up in DuPage County with increasing regularity.

Seeing the wren was a great surprise, and learning some facts about it made the experience even better.

Lately I’ve been reminded how much more there is to learn about birds, even the common ones. A few weeks ago I was reading “Two Blue Jays” to my 3-year-old son. From that children’s book I discovered that the blue jay is the only bird that will bury nuts and seeds in the ground and come back to them later. I knew jays were clever but I didn’t know that.

Then last month I went online to check out Laura Erickson’s monthly birding column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She wrote that cedar waxwings, when building their nests, sometimes steal building materials from the nests of their neighbors. This information took my opinion of waxwings down a notch, but I still think they are the best-dressed birds on the block.

We can all enjoy birds just by looking at them, and sometimes that’s enough. But learning about their habits and lifestyles can help us appreciate them even more. As birders, it’s always rewarding when we take the time to be curious.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.