Tuesday, August 6, 2013

For the Birds!

These are two different kind of crow calls-the second one is softer because I'm farther away from it

Debbie, one of my friends from town, came over this morning.  It was a great excuse to stop weeding the gardens (not that I need much of an excuse) and sit with a glass of homemade ginger ale and some butter cookies I made last night because I had a little too much cream and too many eggs in the house.  We sat on the north porch because it's screened in and the bugs are kinda bad today.  We talked about our families, gossiped about her ex's new girlfriend, and basically do what friends do when they haven't seen each other for a bit...we caught up.  Finally she brought up the subject of what brought her out here.

"So, I heard you saw that bear of yours again." she brings up.  See, Debbie is terrified of bears.

"Yeah, I heard and saw her going over the ridge yesterday." That's me answering her.

"You heard her, what was she growling or tearing down trees?" Debbie.

"No, I'm pretty sure she was trying to sneak off before I saw here.  I heard the jays screaming and then the robins yelled at her when she was going down the other side." Me again.

Debbie nodded and tried to act all nonchalant.  "Do you think she'll stick around?"

"Probably, silly bear.  She likes my apples too much to leave.  I tried baiting her to go to Chequamegon (the national forest to the north), but she would rather stick around here.  I think there are too many bears up there and she feels safer down here.  She's up on the bald today, probably eating raspberries."

"How do you do she's there?  She could be just out of sight in the trees."  Debbie was just trying to scare herself now.

"No, listen...The crows are upset to the east, near the bald.  They say she's up there."

Debbie listened for a minute, nodded and seemed to feel better.

Crow Attacking a Bald Eagle

As someone who lives at the edge of the great taiga (the northern forest) I learned a long time ago that my sense of sight is not the most important sense I have.  The forest is dense and I can only see for so far.  If I were to rely on only what I see, it would often only consist of maybe 5 or 10 feet in front of me.  Basically I would probably never leave the prairie.

But the cool thing is that most humans have 5 senses (and many people believe we have even more).  Just because we spend most of our life looking at things does not mean that from time to time we can't touch them, smell them, listen to them or taste them.  And if you live in a dark place like the great northern forest, you had better get working on those other senses or you're going to miss a lot of things that are going on.

One way to do this is to listen to the birds.  Birds are often nature's greatest tattletales.  It is a survival technic for them to warn each other of approaching danger, to ban together to scream at threats, to call to each other that food is available, and to fall silent in ways that let you know as much as when they call.  The cool thing about birds is they have...well...a bird's eye view.  Because they are higher than we terrestrial animals, they can see a great deal more.  They also move fast, when one starts calling, many others come quickly to lend a hand.  Learning what the birds have to say is almost a requirement for living in a part of nature where eyesight can be useless from time to time.

The best birds to learn their calls?  The Corvids...crows, raven, jays...you know, the loud mouths of the forest.  Not only do they have the loudest calls, so you can hear them for miles, they also have their own sort of "language".  Researchers who study them in depth claim they actually have names that they give to each other and to things in their lives that are common.  I don't study them THAT closely, but I know they do have a different call for each animal in the forest.  They have a different call for wolves that are just lounging around and wolves that are on the hunt or made a kill.  They have a different call for a wounded deer as apposed to just some deer grazing.  And I know they make a different sound for if I walk out the door with a camera or a gun in my hands.

Gray Jay or Camp Robber

Once a person gets the basics of corvid language down, they can stand on top of a ridge and have a pretty good idea of what is going in the forest, who is there, and where they are.  I am always aware of their calls throughout the day. 

But just because the corvids are probably the birds that will give you the most information, that doesn't mean that any bird within ear shot can't be the gossip of the woods.  All birds have alarm calls, and listening to them can let you know SOMETHING is moving out there.  You may not know what it is, but there's something there.  Often you can have a slight idea by what birds are doing the alarm call.  Ground dwelling birds screeching with no other birds joining in often means a snake or a cat.  Lower bush birds may mean a human, a dog, a bobcat.  Canopy birds usually means hawks or owls. 

So, who cares if an hawk or owl is there?  Well, if you know your hawks and owls you know they have territories.  If you know where they are suppose to be, and suddenly they are somewhere else, well, something may be going back where they normally hang out that drove them away.  Like when the sucker fish are spawning in the river we get lots of bald eagles, which drive out the barred owls.  When the barred owls move up to the drier woods at a certain time of year you know the suckers are probably running. 

Silence during certain times of the year can tell you something too.  If it is nesting season male birds will sign their hearts out to defend their territories and to attract females.  If one or a group of them suddenly fall silent, you know there has to be a reason.  Often the silence moves, meaning some birds fall silent as another bunch begins to sing because the danger has moved on.  About a month ago I knew a bobcat was getting awfully close to my chickens because I listened to this area of silence move through the woods towards the barnyard.  No chicken dinner for you, Mr. Bobcat!

The more in touch you are with the bird world, the more likely you'll know what is happening in yours.  When the berries are ripe, when the fish are spawning, when a human is moving through the woods, and when the bear is up on the bald, probably eating raspberries. 

I tried to edit out the bad parts but these are crows and ravens at a wolf kill site