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Field notes: Soundscapes

Springtime promises green fields and woodlands as well as the bright colors and scents of flowers. But try awakening another sense this May. Each year millions of migrant songbirds return to the Northeast, and the way we first notice them is a change in the soundscape.

For example, on spring evenings, the male American woodcock puts on its breeding display in the lowlands surrounding Wappinger Creek. This plump, pigeon-sized bird is best located by the loud “peent” call it produces on the ground. After a series of these calls, you might catch the male’s dark shadow climbing skyward with a twittering sound produced by its wing beats. After reaching a height of 100 meters or more, the woodcock then spirals back to the ground, interspersing vocalizations with the twittering wing beats. This display is for the female, as are many of the songs you’ll hear this spring.

Birds produce a dazzling range of vocalizations, from chickadees’ simple “hey sweetie” and blue jays’ alarm scold to the haunting songs of veeries and other thrushes, the vocal acrobats of the bird world. In addition to creating a soundscape, which is as true to spring as are the flowers, the ecology of birds is intimately tied to the sounds of other organisms around them.

The science of soundscapes is studied at the Cary Institute by Visiting Scientist Ken Schmidt. For more information on soundscapes, visit the kiosk in the lowlands when you’re spotting woodcocks this spring.