Watching and listening to birds

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


May 12, 2015
Starla Pointer of the News-Register

Bird Walk

Starla Pointer/News-Register — Birdwatchers focus their binoculars high in the trees of Storey Park, the Cozine Creek canyon adjacent to the Linfield Oak Grove.

Led by what would be described in birding terms as a Plaid-Shirted Professor, a flock of fledgling birdwatchers focused their eyes and ears on the trees and sky around Linfield College Friday morning.

Robins patrolled the lawns, cocking their heads as they listened for worms moving underground. American Goldfinches flitted from tree to tree, lemon drops among the green. Vaux’s Swifts and Cedar Waxwings flew high overhead — the latter having recently arrived on their migratory journey, attracted by the first traces of fruit in local trees.

“This is a good way to start a Friday,” said student Michael McGrath. “It’s a beautiful day and we get to learn about birds.”

Dressed in layered clothing, McGrath is one of several students and other members of the Linfield community who’ve been joining weekly bird walks led by Thomas Love, the Plaid-Shirted Professor. The garb, good for early-morning birdwatching this time of year, might have inspired an ornithologist to label him a Long-Haired Green Vest.

Love teaches anthropology and ecology at Linfield. Ornithology is just a sidelight, reflecting his love of birds.

“Birds are cool because they’re relatively visible and detectable,” he said.

Many mammals also can be found on campus, or in adjacent Storey Park, through which Cozine Creek flows. Students have reported seeing otters, beavers and deer, and coyotes and mink undoubtedly make homes along the Cozine as well.

But except for numerous squirrels, the mammals tend to remain elusive. Birds, on the other hand, are apparent on the ground, in the trees and in the sky.

In addition to being highly visible, they are audible. That’s especially true early in the morning, when the campus is is quiet.

Another student birdwatcher — Alaire Hughey, aka the Blonde Plaid Coat — said she enjoys walking across campus when bird song dominates the soundscape. “It’s peaceful,” she said, even if the birdsong is riotous.

But why are birds’ sounds so evident?

Love said humans may hear birdsongs and calls as expressions of happiness, but they’re actually not.

Calls usually convey messages to other members of a species, such as “Danger!” or “Found a food source!”

Songs are usually related to staking out territory. Males sing, “This place is mine! Stay away!”

Generally, females don’t sing, he said. Not all species make a habit of singing, either, although the array of songbirds is very diverse.

In addition to designating birds by whether they sing or not, Love said he often thinks of birds by their guilds, or occupations. Some birds glean insects or berries from trees, other hammer their beaks into bark to collect insects, and still others swoop up snacks while they’re flying.

He also thinks of birds according to their migratory patterns, which are remarkably consistent. He said their times of arrival each spring are typically quite predictable.

This year, though, some species have flown in early. Maybe it’s because the weather has been so warm and mild, or because local flowers bloomed earlier than usual.

Migration is “like meeting old friends,” he told his fellow birdwatchers. “It’s like ‘High 5, it’s the Western Tanager!’”

As Love and the other birdwatchers strolled across campus, they paused frequently to look and listen.

They lifted their binoculars to check out a Black-Headed Grosbeak, a Blackcap Chickadee, and Love’s old friend, the Tanager, with its yellow body and red head. They flipped through birding books to discover more about waxwings and warblers.

They cocked their heads, much like the robins, as they sorted out the various calls — could that be the high twitter of a Spotted Towhee? Is that the “wacka, wacka” cry of an Acorn Woodpecker?

“Here’s the exam,” Love quipped. He gave a short whistle. “What species is that?”

He whistled again, mimicking a bird in the oak canopy high above.

“It’s the Lazuli Bunting. It came in about a week ago,” he said, excited.

After he and students lifted their binoculars, they discovered it was a different bird with a similar call.

But either way, it was another old friend. Another migratory High 5.