I go birding. I now realize that birds go peopling. I have my tricks; they have theirs. How could I have missed this before?
I’m a professional. I can figure out where birds are hiding. I can make funny noises that draw them closer. I can even predict how they will react to the funny noises I am making. But, darn it, the little twerps are doing the same thing to me. I never realized it until now. They must chuckle when they get a sucker like me in the field.
I’ve just finished another season of guiding folks to see Maine birds. With time for a little quiet
reflection, I’ve begun adding up all the times birds lured me into impenetrable thickets and enticed me into mud. They marched me in circles around trees as I tried to glimpse the little tykes making those weird noises up in the foliage. You just know one bird is saying to the other, “Look at what I can make this guy do.” They’re peopling. Here’s my evidence:
Have you ever given up and sauntered away from a mystery bird that had gone silent, only to have him start up again when you had walked away? Gotcha. Did you walk back, only to have him go silent once more? Gotcha again.
Have you ever heard a familiar bird making an unfamiliar noise? You went looking for him, right? He’s toying with you.
Have you ever heard a bird singing a song that was halfway between two different songs? For instance, a magnolia warbler can sing with just enough exuberance to sound like a chestnut-sided warbler, or with so little enthusiasm as to suggest American redstart. Naturally, he is doing this while hidden, just to see how far he can pull you into the brambles. Well, I have my pride. I set limits. I will not be pulled into the briar patch any farther than reasonable blood loss allows.
Mockingbirds mock you. They sing note-perfect imitations of other birds, often singing the song better than the original bird could sing it. Gray catbirds have their own ruse. Like all mimics, they learn the songs of other birds. While spending the winter in the southern United States, they pick up the tunes of southern birds. They share the bushes of the Florida Everglades with white-eyed vireos, one of the few songbirds that are actually singing during that time of year down there. When the catbirds return, they sometimes sing the white-eyed vireo song from deep in the bushes where you can’t view them. This deception no longer fools me, but it used to.
It helps to know all the sounds each bird makes. Most birds have a territorial song for attracting a mate, a call for telling each other where they are, a flight note, an alarm note…and 47 other vocalizations intended solely to vex you.
Here’s another bird trick designed to make you chase shadows: flitting. Some birds just won’t stand still long enough for you to get binoculars on them. Kinglets are notorious flitters. They are perpetual motion machines come to life. They’ll show you a glimpse, then move deeper into the trees, drawing you in, teasing you on. They are diabolical.
Sparrows taunt. They hide in the bushes and flit through the grasses, appearing and disappearing, moving like spirits that hold your attention past the point of common sense.
Thrushes tease. When spooked, they move just far enough to be visible but not identifiable. They’ll fly or walk deeper into the woods — choosing whichever movement is most likely to keep you curious. Woodpeckers just circle to the back side of the tree and dare you to walk around them.
Some birds go to great lengths to cause you trouble. Yellow-rumped warblers are easy to recognize when they show you their yellow rumps. So, naturally, they face you and refuse to turn around. They stare down at you, filled with a combination of mirth and disdain. Even their call notes express their derision: “twit.”
Birds know you have binoculars, and it seems they can sense how powerful your binoculars are. Greater and lesser yellowlegs are shorebirds that like to sit just far enough away as to make a positive identification difficult. Were you to swap your seven-power binoculars for ten-power, you would certainly see them move just a little deeper into the marsh.
I let the birds torment me all summer, and the worst thing is: I’ll let them do it again next year.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.