by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
Yellow Warbler singing
Have you heard the music of nature? The song of birds is what many people think of first when asked this question. I also hear music when the wind whistles through the branches of a pine tree or rustles through the leaves of a cottonwood in the early autumn. The trickle of a small mountain stream or the rushing sound of a river at flood stage during the spring melt-off are both music to my ears, too.
Besides the bird songs, I listen for the first chorus frogs in the spring, or the humming of a bumblebee in the heat of summer. I love the chirping of tree crickets in the late summer and early fall. In September and October if you travel up into the mountains, you may hear the bugling of an elk. This is an eerie sound that penetrates the evening air, but it surely is a part of nature’s music. The howling of a coyote or wolf adds to the amazing chorus.
At night, the hooting of a Great-horned owl is something that i love to hear. This past spring I came out of our office at Sombrero Marsh one evening and there was a pair of these owls calling back and forth to each other, one having a slightly higher pitch than the other so it was easy to tell them apart.
As a little boy growing up on long island, I would often go to sleep listening to the beautiful song of a Wood Thrush that sang right outside my window every evening during May and June each year. If you haven’t heard this great songster, be sure to go online to the Cornell laboratory of ornithology and listen to the recording of its musical notes. I think that it’s one of the most beautiful bird songs in the world.
Other thrushes whose lovely songs you may hear are those of the American robin and the Hermit Thrush. I have an American robin who sings outside my bedroom window right in downtown Boulder. To hear a Hermit Thrush, you have to go up into the sub-alpine zone of our mountains in the summertime. Some people say that its song resembles panpipes and that it’s copying the sounds of the mystical piper “Kokopelli.” I think it’s fun to imagine that!
Birds sing to set up and defend their territories and to attract a mate. It is only the male bird who sings. He is telling you that there is a breeding pair of birds here. In the meantime, the female is making her nest and sitting on her eggs. Did you know that the average bird’s internal temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit? In order for this heat to transfer easily to the eggs, the female bird has a “brood patch.” This is an area on the breast where the down feathers are lost or pulled out so that the bare skin is exposed and makes direct contact with the eggs to keep them warm.
The best time to hear a variety of bird songs is in the early morning or in the evening. I like to sit or stand quietly, close my eyes, and just listen to the sounds. Notice that with your eyes closed, your ears become much more sensitive and you notice many more sounds than you do with your eyes open. Soon you can learn to tell which species of bird it is just by its song. This is all the music of nature, and I hope you learn to enjoy it in your life as much as I have in mine!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail email@example.com or call (303) 499-3647.