© 2023
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Birds that aren't birds

By Rhododendrites /
CC 4.0

Hey, what bird is that? Some exotic warbler no doubt. Better track it down. Hmm — seems a bit furry and seriously cheeky for a warbler. The truth is, those chips are from a chipmunk. If you got that right, you may just be a star naturalist. Because sometimes a bird is not a bird, and it’s not always easy to tell the imposters from the feathered songsters. Let’s take a little tour of some of the critters that like to sound like birds, maybe just to annoy and confuse you.

Chipmunks tend to be the worst offenders around now — they are very active and vocal in fall while they prepare for winter. Those calls are for running around and talking to each other. But this call may be most common around now — they sit somewhere you can’t see them and give this call endlessly. I call it the “munk” call, but others liken it to knocking on a door.

Sometimes a bird is a frog. There was recently a discussion in a local wildlife group about what baby screech owls sound like, because a person was thinking they were hearing them, and doing their best to describe the sound. Many earnest answers came forth from helpful folks, but when the audio was eventually posted, it was a chorus of Spring Peepers. Their sweet, birdlike chirps are familiar to most, but apparently not to all. I’m obligated to mention that folks on Martha’s Vineyard call Spring Peepers “pinkletinks," which makes me worry a bit about people on Martha’s Vineyard.

But maybe those Vineyarders have a point, since peepers don’t just call in spring. Individual peepers are often vocal in fall, the time when they fool the most people. Around now, many months after their spring choruses have ended and no one is thinking about them anymore, single peepers give a hoarser version of the spring call, sounding ever so bird-like. Compare it with these flight calls of a Swainson’s Thrush, a sound you would hear on a quiet night as they migrate overhead. I guess sometimes a frog is a bird.

In late winter you might hear this ducky quack-fest coming from a wooded wetland. Most of you recognize this chorus part duck, part people walking in squeaky shoes — as breeding Wood Frogs, but these calls have puzzled many a person. It doesn’t help that Wood Ducks have such a similar name and habitat affinity. Luckily, these infuriating choruses of invisible ducks only happen for a short while in late winter and early spring. But individual Wood Frogs, like peepers, sometimes sound off again around now.

Rounding out the amphibious bird-impersonators is a species that goes so far as to call from high in trees, so it HAS to be a bird. Picture a warm summer afternoon, and you hear this from high in tree, well away from water. You’d have to be soft in the head to think a frog would be calling in that situation, but indeed, this is one of my favorites, the Gray Treefrog.

Sometimes a bird is a bird, but it sounds more like a truck, like this Saw-whet Owl. How about this saw-whet owl? Hmm. Might be something else — better move your car just in case.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.