Springtime on Whidbey brings birdsong, familiar and unfamiliar

As I write this, a bird belts out a song outside my window. The rhythm sounds like; “I’m a SING-er, SING-er, SING-er,” at least, it does to me. The tone of the song is familiar and I know I should know it, but I can’t put a name with it.

The songster sits deep in a bush, hidden from view and drives me crazy. If I try to sneak up on the bird, it stops and as soon as I give up and walk away, it starts up again.

I expect this is a familiar bird, just singing an unfamiliar variation of its song.

Even though I’ve been studying birdsong for years and know all the local songsters, every spring I need a refresher. A few migrant birds only stay for a few days, singing as they pass through, so I don’t have much practice with them. The northern flicker and the pileated woodpecker have similar calls and I need to check my birding phone apps to hear the difference.

As I’m mulling over my mysterious “SING-er, SING-er, SING-er,” I notice a California quail hop up on a fence post and shout its familiar “Chi-CA-go, chi-CA-go!” That bird’s identity is a snap, both by sight and by sound.

In both cases the male birds are trying to attract a female for the breeding season. Yet, singing can be very risky, since it announces the bird’s location to any neighborhood predator to swoop in and snatch it.

Why does one bird species sing from the depths of a thickly vegetated ravine and another sit proudly atop a pedestal for all to see? And, for that matter, why not just stick with a simple song, like the California quail, rather than a more variable song, like my unidentified “SING-er?”

Most female birds are attracted to two things: alluring and stimulating songs and flashy feathers. If you don’t have one, you gotta have the other.

My little brown “SING-er” hidden in the bush needs a complex and varied song to keep the females interested, and the dapper California quail can get away with a mediocre song because it sports a flashy set of plumes including a debonair top knot.

Size also plays a role. If my little brown songster perched atop a tree while serenading its adoring mate, every predator from crow-sized up to eagle-sized could readily pick it off. The larger, much chunkier California quail is safer size-wise attracting only the largest of predators. The fence post stage allows open space for the quail to see any large approaching predator.

Over the eons, natural selection has refined the balance between fancy feathers and showy songs. Here on Whidbey we have a delightful assortment of wild birds spanning the spectrum in both plumage and in song.

For example, the brilliantly colored hummingbirds produce uninteresting calls. Alternatively the somber-plumed Pacific wrens trill one of the most complex bird songs in all of North America. The Swainson’s thrush, another bird of thickly vegetated forests with over-all brown feathers, charms with an almost angelic, spiraling melody.

Right now is the perfect time of year to get out birding and enjoy both enchanting birdsong and brilliantly feathered songbirds. The males are adorned for spring and singing their little hearts out.

Oh, and the identity of my mystery “SING-er, SING-er, SING-er?” It took me a couple days to figure it out and then I kicked myself for not remembering. It’s a species with a very large repertoire of songs, which differ over geographic locales. I suspect this guy is new in my neighborhood.

It is a very common species all over Whidbey: the Bewick’s wren.

Craig Johnson photo — A male California quail watches over a large brood from his perch.

Craig Johnson photo — A male California quail watches over a large brood from his perch.