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Song Birds

Song Birds

American Dipper (mp3)

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American Robins (mp3)

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Birds Hide Food (mp3)

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Bohemian Rhapsody (mp3)

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Chickadees (mp3)

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Chickadees 2 (Transcript)

Chickadees

On a dark, cold January day in Fairbanks, a cheerful sound drifts across Creamer's Field. It's the song of a black capped chickadee. And it's not just any song, it's the mating song of the male. It's not entirely unexpected. Naturalist Mark Ross with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said he's heard the chickadee mating song as early as January in four of the past seven years. It's not exactly a sign of spring, but it is a sign that the winter solstice has passed and the days are getting longer.

The increase in daylight in the weeks after the solstice is be subtle, adding just a few scant minutes, but it's enough to trigger the hormonal changes that stimulate territorial behaviors like singing and social interaction, which eventually leads to mate selection, nest building and mating, in April.

By spring, other voices will join the chickadees in the mating chorus. Chickadees are tiny birds, just five inches long from head to tail. Alaska is home to four species: black-capped chickadees, boreal chickadees, chestnut backed chickadees, and grey headed chickadees. Chestnut backed chickadees are found only along the coastline in the wet rainforests, and grey-headed chickadees are found only in the far north. Gray headed chickadees are the northernmost chickadee in North America, inhabiting the scattered black spruce stands and riparian willows at the northern edge of the tree line in Arctic and subarctic Alaska and Canada.

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Chirping Sparrow (mp3, Transcript)

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Chirping sparrow

On a beautiful spring day, the forest is alive with the sounds of birds. A small brown sparrow flits through the trees and darts into a bush. It's a chipping sparrow, and inside the shelter of this shrub is a bundle of grass and thread-like rootlets, woven into a little cup-shaped nest. At the bottom, four speckled, bluish-green eggs laid on a bed of hair.

Most sparrows will line their nests with hair, fur or feathers, depending on what's available. The chipping sparrow is particularly fond of hair, and in some parts of the country it's called the hair bird. Horse hair is a favorite in horse country and where horse hair is abundant, these birds will build their nests with the long hairs from manes and tails, and then line them with shorter hairs and underfur, or hair from cattle.

Sparrows in Alaska will line their nests with dog hair, or hair from deer, moose, or caribou, whatever they can find. In the north tree sparrows, a common sparrow in Alaska, will use lemming fur. Porcupine fur - but not quills - can also be found lining the nests of Alaska sparrows. When no hair can be found, sparrows will line their nests with fine rootlets and soft grass, then supply some of their own feathers to make a soft bed for their eggs and their hatchlings.

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Eurasian collared doves (mp3, Transcript)

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Eurasian collared doves

In the early hours of a summer morning in southeast Alaska, a noisy bird starts calling. It's a Eurasian collared dove, a recent immigrant to Alaska, and to the United States. Looking similar to the familiar mourning dove, the Eurasian collared dove is native to the Middle East - as its name would imply.

Eurasian collared doves were brought to the Bahamas in the early 1970s as pets, and in 1974 about 50 of the birds escaped from a pet store in Nassau. Within a few years they made it to Florida. The species is strongly dispersive - meaning the young doves travel when they fledge. Its expansion westward and northward is remarkable, and the species is now common across much of North America. Eurasian collared doves were first seen in Alaska in 2006 in Ketchikan, and by 2011 they were documented in most Southeast communities; as of 2016 they are nesting in Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau. The doves primarily feed on grain, so they are not likely to thrive in Alaska on wild food and they are mostly seen in towns at feeders. The first sighting in Anchorage was in 2015. That means that the successive generations of doves pushed northwest an average of 150 miles each year since that initial landfall in Florida

Although a pair of doves raises just one or two chicks in a brood, in warmer climates, they breed year-round and can raise six broods a year. And those young like to travel.

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Melodious Jays (mp3)

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Pacific Wren (mp3, Transcript)

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Pacific wren

On a damp, March day in Southeast Alaska, the cheery song of the Pacific wren is a welcome sound in the chilly rainforest. Some Pacific wrens migrate south in winter, but many stay and overwinter in Alaska, and in fact this tiny bird used to be called the winter wren. In 2010, winter wrens found in the western United States, the eastern United States, and in Europe and Asia were split into three different species. The wrens in the eastern US retained the name winter wren, those in the west became Pacific wrens, and those in the old world are now called Eurasian wrens.

Although these tiny brown birds all look the same, biologists have long observed that their songs are noticeably different. The song of the eastern wrens are slower, lower pitched, and more repetitive than western wrens, and western wrens sing dozens of variations of their faster, burbling song, with trills and down-slurred whistles the eastern wrens lack.

The great ice sheets and glaciers of the last ice age divided a lot of animals and birds into western and eastern populations. Over tens of thousands of years of separation, differences between the groups became more and more pronounced - a process known as speciation. But there's more going on with the wrens -their DNA shows that the winter wren and the Pacific wren last shared a common ancestor more than four million years ago, long before the ice ages separated them. The combination of genetics and behavior convinced scientists that these birds merit new names and their own species designation.

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Pine siskins (mp3, Transcript)

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Pine siskins

On a winter day, a big flock of streaky brown chickadee-size birds swarms my neighbor's feeder. While some are perched on the feeder, most are hopping around on the ground, pecking at the spilled seeds. The yellow feathers on the wings and streaky yellow breast identifies these little finches as pine siskins.

Related to the beautiful goldfinches found in the Lower 48, siskins are northern-adapted cousins, well-suited for life in Alaska and Canada. They don't migrate south for the winter, but they do range widely in search of food. If they have enough to eat, they can endure brutally cold winters in Interior Alaska. Siskins put on significantly more winter fat than their cousins, the redpolls and goldfinches. The siskins metabolic rate is about 40% higher than a "normal" songbird of their size. When temperatures in Interior Alaska plunge to 50 or 60 degrees below zero, these hardy little finches accelerate that already high metabolic rate up to five times normal for several hours. They store extra food in a special throat pouch called a crop, and use this valuable energy source to fuel that high metabolic rate on cold nights.

If nesting siskins are hit with spring weather in the spring, they protect their young. Siskin nests are heavily insulated with a thick layer of plant materials. And in a cold snap a nesting female will incubate her eggs or young hatchlings 24 hours a day while her mate brings her food.

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Red Wing Blackbirds (mp3, Transcript)

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Red-winged Blackbird

Perched above a shallow tidal slough, a black bird with striking red shoulder patches announces his claim to a territory, a cluster of shoreside reeds. It's a red-winged blackbird, one of the most widespread birds in North America and probably the most abundant bird on the continent.

Red-winged Blackbirds range from Alaska to Mexico and are found year-round in all of the lower 48 states. Red-winged blackbirds in Alaska are migratory, nesting in Alaska and wintering in the southern United States and Central America.

They nest in wetlands, and both freshwater and saltwater marshes. Breeding surveys in some refuges show redwing blackbird to be triple and quadruple the number of other common breeding songbirds like vireos, robins and sparrows.

Red-winged blackbirds are doubly well-named. The common name is descriptive, and the genus name, ah-jeh-LAY-us, means "belonging to a flock." While pairs are territorial during the breeding season, for most of the year they form enormous flocks that can number hundreds of thousands of birds, and night roosts can number in the millions. One winter roost in Dismal Swamp, Virginia was estimated at 15 million birds. An estimate in the winter of 1984 put the North American population at 190 million birds, making red-winged blackbirds the most abundance bird species in North America.

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Redpoll Irruption (mp3)

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Sky Full of Swallows (mp3)

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Snow Buntings (mp3, Transcript)

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Snow buntings

Mid-March in Interior Alaska, and winter still has a firm grip on the land. But in Fairbanks, the arrival of snow buntings is an early sign of spring. Buntings are closely related to sparrows, and look like a large, chunky sparrow.

(Excellent quote 1 about first bird to arrive, passing thru on way to North Slope. 13 sec.)

That's Susan Sharbaugh, the senior scientist at the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks.

She said the buntings nest and breed on the North Slope above the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks is a temporary stop as they pass through the Interior on their migration north - but they're a welcome sight.

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Steller Jay (mp3)

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The Hermit's Song (mp3)

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The Mirror Test (mp3, Transcript)

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The Mirror Test

The birdfeeder on our deck is popular with chickadees and juncos, and early this spring we began noticing an interesting behavior with the juncos. We set an old, cracked mirror out on the deck and some of the juncos find it fascinating. We never see more than one bird at a time approach the mirror, but a bird will hop around at the base and peck at his reflection, sometimes fluttering against the glass. It's aggressive, but it seems unlikely the bird will hurt himself.

I had a pet parakeet as a kid, and he had a mirror in his cage. He viewed his reflection as more of a companion, and would tap his beak against it, preen his reflection, and sometimes sing to it. That's pretty typical - most animals don't understand that a reflection represents them. A few can pass what's known as the mirror test - Killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, some chimps and orangutans. Among birds, only magpies are known to recognize themselves in a mirror. Biologist put small colored spots on magpies - marks that they could not feel - and when they glimpsed their reflection, they scratched at the mark.

The little junco sees the reflection as another bird. Juncos have a social hierarchy, and it's likely that a dominant male is feeling challenged by his reflection.

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The Red in Redpoll (mp3)

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The Summer Orchestra (mp3, Transcript)

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The summer orchestra

On a summer morning the forest is alive with the music of songbirds. With a little practice, it's possible to identify these singers. Robins and thrush, flycatchers, warblers, chickadees and sparrows can be picked out.

To help, birders have assigned some phrases or mnemonic devices to identify calls - words said to the tune and speed of a bird call. The call of the American Robin can be spoken as "cheer up… …cheerio." The Olive-sided Flycatcher is another bird whose call is easier to remember with a phrase. Perching atop dead tree snags in coniferous areas, they announce their territory by calling out "Quick, Three beers!" In the case of the chickadee, the name is reminiscent of their chickadee-dee- song.

It's helpful to make up your own phrases and reminders to help identify birds by song and call. The call of the varied thrush reminds me of my grade school gym teacher's whistle. Both the bird and the whistle create two notes at the same time, a distinct buzzy whistle that carries well.

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Three Thrush Songs (mp3)

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Thrush Songs (mp3, Transcript)

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Thrush Songs

The forest in spring is chorus of bird songs. Warblers, flycatchers and sparrows lend their voices, but thrushes are among Alaska's most widespread songbirds. And among songbirds, their voices stand out.

The American robin is the best known of the thrushes. Its song is the familiar "cheer up, cheerio" ---

The brightly colored varied thrush, the robin's larger cousin, has a distinct song that is easily recognized. It's actually two notes of slightly different pitch, sung at the same time. The double note call is somewhat reminiscent of a gym teacher's whistle.

The robin has two smaller, inconspicuous cousins, the hermit thrush and Swainson's thrush. Both have beautiful, flutelike voices. The hermit thrush song starts with a clear, single note, followed by a chiming warble. This is repeated on different pitches. -----

The song of Swainson's thrush ascends up the scale with a spiraling warble and fades. -------

Both Swainson's thrush and the hermit thrush are birds that are heard more often than seen.

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White Crowned Sparrows (mp3, Transcript)

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On a sunny June day Fish and Game biologists are working in the wetlands near Anchorage. They are surveying shorebirds like lesser yellowlegs, and while they are successful in that endeavor, they are impressed by an abundance of one species of songbird here brightening their days with its song - the white crowned sparrow.

A white crowned sparrow is easy to identify, sporting bold, black and white stripes on its head like a racing helmet. It has a relatively long tail for a sparrow. White-crowned sparrows range from the Southeast rainforest to the southern edge of the Brooks Range in summer, they are found across northern Canada as well, although they are primarily a western bird. They tend to stay close to the ground, foraging on the ground or in low shrubs. They also tend to nest on the ground or tucked into low shrubs and trees. In late summer, white crowned sparrows leave Alaska and migrate south to spend winters in the Southern US. Members of Alaska's white-crowned sparrow population have been tracked migrating close to 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California, and some travel all the way to Mexico.

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White Robin (mp3, Transcript)

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White robin

On a rainy summer day near the Mendenhall River in Juneau, a birder has her binoculars trained on an odd-looking bird. It looks like a robin, but it's completely white. She gets a good look, and takes a few pictures. It is a robin, and it's totally white.

Albinism and leucism are two conditions that can cause animals to have white fur, hair, skin or feathers. Albinism affects an entire animal, but leucism can affect an entire animal, or just patches. Animals with partial leucism are referred to as "peid" or "piebald." A leucistic animal will have normal-looking eyes. Leucistic lions are white, but have normal eyes and lips. Animals with albinism have pink or red colored eyes. A close look at the pictures reveals that the robin has red eyes. An animal with albinism has red colored eyes because the retina and iris lack pigment, revealing the underlying blood vessels.

An animal with albinism has melanocytes, the cells that make the skin pigment melanin, but the animal lacks the ability to process an enzyme that produces melanin. Leucistic animals do not have melanocytes at all - so the skin, hair, or feathers in the affected areas can't produce pigment. They have regular eyes because embryonically, eyes develop separately and from different precursor cells than skin does, and the pigment-producing melanocytes in the eyes develop normally.

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Wild Finches (mp3, Transcript)

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Wild finches

The usual crowd of juncos and chickadees is gathered at the bird feeder when a surprise visitor shows up - a pine grosbeak. The grosbeak is a wild finch. Some of the most colorful birds to visit a feeder in Alaska in winter are the wild native finches. Related to the domestic singers kept as pets, wild finches are seed and fruit eaters with stout beaks. Pine grosbeaks are almost as big as robins, and they are the largest of Alaska's wild finches. Males are rosy red in color with black wing feathers edged in white. Mountain ash berries are a popular food in winter, and availability of those red berries varies year to year. When food is scarce in the north, grosbeaks are one of many subarctic birds that exhibit irruptive behavior. Irruptive movements are not regular annual events like migration but occur when birds move in search of food. This brings birds further south than they might usually be seen.

Redpolls, siskins, and crossbills are the other common Alaska finches. The white winged crossbill has a distinctive bill with crossed tips it uses to extract seeds from spruce cones. Redpolls and siskins are the smallest of the wild Alaska finches, about the size of chickadees. Redpolls have a bright red forehead and males have a reddish wash to their brown feathers. Siskins are streaky brown with a yellow wash to their plumage.

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Winter Bird Feeding (mp3)

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Winter Feeder Birds (mp3, Transcript)

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Bird feeders - no bear danger

Fifteen minutes after filling the bird feeder for the first time in the fall and putting it up on our deck, we have visitors. We don't feed birds in the summer - there is plenty of wild food available and we don't want to attract bears. But when fall comes we're happy to draw some of our feathered, fellow year-round Alaskans to our house and yard.

More than 400 different species of birds can be found in Alaska in the summer, but that number drops dramatically in winter. About 25 species endure the cold, dark winters of interior and western Alaska. Although more than 100 species stay through the milder coastal winters of south coastal and southeast Alaska, many of those are unlikely to visit feeders. Juncos and chickadees are our most common feeder birds in Juneau. A pair of Steller jays dominates our feeding area, so we have several feeders with different kinds of seeds, including a tube feeder that's better suited for smaller birds.

Seed-eating birds that can be attracted to feeders in winter include sparrows - like white crowned sparrows, and finches like pine grosbeaks, redpolls, pine siskins and crossbills. Our feeders are safely away from the reach of neighborhood cats.

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Winter Robin (mp3, Transcript)

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Winter robins

Robins are the famed harbinger of spring, and the vast majority of these songbirds leave Alaska for the winter and return in the spring. But a few robins stick around every year and overwinter in Alaska.

The winter diet of robins is mainly fruit. If there are shrubs and trees like mountain ash available with a good crop, robins will stick around until the food source is depleted. Temperature plays a more minor role on whether or not robins remain in northern areas. Prolonged cold requires more energy for the birds to stay warm, so they might exhaust the food supply sooner and move on. If the ground is bare and temperatures are fairly warm, robins will forage for invertebrates much as they do in the summer, so they tend to move out of areas with snow on the ground.

The proliferation of fruiting ornamental shrubs in urban areas may be contributing to what appears to be increased numbers of robins spending at least part of the winter in northern areas.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that takes place over four days in mid-February, providing a snapshot of the North America's wintering birds. Robins are present in winter in Alaska every year in small numbers, and in 2011 more than 100 were seen in Homer, with about a dozen present in both Sitka and in Juneau. In February of 2009, 40 robins were found overwintering in Anchorage.

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Winter Songbirds (mp3)

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Winter Songbirds 2 (Transcript)

Winter songbirds

Shortly after Christmas, a dozen robins descended on a snow covered graveyard in Juneau and began picking through the leaf litter beneath the bushes. During the cold, dark weeks that followed, the robins remained. Further north, in Fairbanks, people saw robins and a sharp-shinned hawk long after their brethren had migrated south for the winter.

Some birds, like most waterfowl, have a strong instinctive drive to migrate. Other birds, like herons, snowy owls and redpolls leave the North Country in winter only because food is scarce. They fly only as far as they need to - to find food and more favorable conditions, and return to their normal breeding areas as soon as they can.

A bird might stay in the north because it's injured in the fall and misses the window of opportunity to leave. A bird that hasn't stored up the necessary energy to migrate might stay because it lacks the reserves to make the trip.

Cold weather is not a problem for birds if they've got enough to eat. If a bird is in a place where the environment continues to meet its nutritional demands and other needs, there may be little incentive to leave. In Fairbanks in recent years a power plant on the Chena River has created a stretch of reliable open water that attracts a variety of ducks and other birds during the winter months.

A community like Fairbanks is an island of bird feeders in otherwise hungry country and can support an unusually high density of birds in winter. Robins, nuthatches and creepers were not even seen in the annual Christmas bird counts until the early 1980s, but they've been seen pretty consistently in recent decades.

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Winter Wren (mp3)

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