This past Saturday, as I was spending time out in my yard doing yardwork, I was visiting with my next-door neighbor. I hate to admit it, but as I was engrossed in conversation, I was somewhat oblivious to the sounds of nature—which is not like me. Normally my mind is constantly processing the sounds I’m hearing around me.
At some point, as my neighbor and I were visiting, I realized I was hearing the distress calls of spotted towhees. It had been going on for a few minutes, but I hadn’t been “tuned in.” As soon as the realization came to me that these birds were agitated and upset and were constantly producing an “alarm” call, my mind shifted gears.
I said to my neighbor, “I’m hearing the alarm calls of some spotted towhees, I wonder if there may be a snake in my yard.” We quickly walked over to the backyard where I have a small waterfall and pond. Sure enough, I spotted a long-nosed snake making its way up and over the rocks bordering the waterfall.
Long-nosed snakes are highly variable in their coloration and pattern. One pattern is very similar to that of the common kingsnake, so the two species are often confused for one another. They are a non-poisonous, harmless snake and are very beneficial to have around the yard—unless you are a lizard or a bird!
Until that moment, I didn’t know I had an active spotted towhee nest in my backyard—with several vulnerable, flightless fledglings. There was certainly cause for alarm for the towhees. The parents were hopping all around the snake, continuously vocalizing their alarm call.
My neighbor is deathly afraid of snakes—I am not—and the snake started to head into his yard, so I caught it and released it into another part of my yard. In the end, all was well.
This is one of many experiences I have had over a lifetime of birding, when birds have alerted me to a predator in my yard because I heard their “danger” call. This is especially true of bushtits. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the alarm call of bushtits. As soon as a threat is detected, they all start making this high-pitched call that is very different from their “normal” vocalization. This alarm call is easily recognizable by other birds as well, and alerts everyone to imminent danger. Invariably, if I look up from what I’m doing, I will see a Cooper’s hawk cruising through the yard.
Being tuned in, and being aware of the different sounds wild birds produce, will contribute to your success in seeing what is happening in nature. Birds are super observant and are masters of sounding the alarm when something is “out of place.”
This happened to me several years ago when I was working in my garage with the garage door open. Several ravens were really raising a ruckus. They were clearly agitated and were sounding the alarm. Once again (I hate to admit it) I wasn’t really tuned into the fact that they were upset.
Once the realization occurred to me, I immediately went to investigate the cause of their concern, only to discover a beautiful bobcat walking up my driveway! If I hadn’t paid attention to the ravens, I would have missed that encounter with nature, just like my recent experience of seeing the long-nosed snake.
I encourage you to pay more attention to the birds vocalizing in your yard—you just might have one of those “whoa” moments where you see something you would have missed had you not been tuned into the birds in your yard.
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn in Prescott, Arizona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.