Bird song here beats the tropics

Spring is on its way. Dawn in my yard will soon be greeted by the enthusiastic songs of many species.

Spotted towhees and Cassin’s vireos will sing from the hill across the road. A house finch will belt out songs in the neighbor’s yard. Up to three different house wrens will sing their exuberant songs, each trying to outdo the other. A robin and a black-headed grosbeak will add their voices to the chorus. Bullock’s orioles usually nest in the neighbor’s willow and will have a go at song, though its efforts barely qualify. Even this list does not exhaust the number of singers I hear on a short walk to retrieve the newspaper.

For now they wait silently, most in the tropics of Mexico biding their time until the leaves in the Rogue Valley unfurl, hosting a myriad of nutritious insects. The first of the singers will be orange-crowned warblers followed a few weeks later by the rest of the vocal spring migrants.

Even as a young boy, I was fascinated with birds, especially those living in the tropics. I borrowed a field guide by Irby Davis and poured over plate after plate of pictures illustrating the spectacular birds found throughout Mexico and Central America. There were quetzals and trogons, hummingbirds and cotingas and so many more. I dreamed of visiting the tropics.

I have since had the chance to take several trips to the tropics. And, yes, the birds as well as mammals and insects are spectacular. But on a recent trip to Belize I noticed something I had overlooked before. There was little song.

I spent four days with a young and very talented naturalist who had grown up in the area. One morning he tallied 84 bird species before breakfast. I was right with him, but I had nowhere near 84 species. He knew the call notes. I heard them too, but I was unfamiliar with most. I said call notes, not song. The only song worthy of mention was that of a wren, the spot-breasted wren. I asked about bird song when the rains came and breeding started. He mentioned a couple of finches that sang, but no, there is never much song.

In the Rogue Valley, warblers among many other singers provide rich and diverse songs from the marshes on the valley floor to the forests at timberline. Many warblers winter in Belize. I saw more than a dozen species ranging from golden-winged warblers to worm-eating warblers to magnolia warblers, and yet no song.

As I watched warbler after warbler silently scour the vegetation for insect prey, I thought about the forests and gardens in the U.S. and Canada they brighten with song in spring. But this naturalist had never heard a song from even one of them. I found this a bit sad.

I treasure the tropics and will continue to visit when I can, but I prefer to live here in the Northwest where I can savor 10 or more talented singers on a short stroll on a spring morning. I invited the young naturalist to visit Oregon some day in June.

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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