Kestrel's Musings

Rambles and explorations from this perspective.


The “Songstress”

Troglodytes aedon translates to the “songstress cave dweller” according to The Dictionary of American Bird Names by Ernest A. Choate (1985 revised edition).  House Wrens do tend to nest in “caves” or cavity like nests, but it is the songstress appellation that strikes me the best. Wrens in general captivate me. I was delayed in posting this Ode to Ralph Hoffmann due to my inability to choose which wren to showcase. I am entertained outside the cottage by House Wrens during breeding season (literally breeding on the house), Bewick Wrens otherwise, and the occasional Canyon Wren in winter. A House Wren is singing this very moment out the back where their second nest is wedged in the eves. They are a never ending source of delight.

House WrenFew birds so well express the abounding vitality so characteristic of birds as the House Wren. In and out of brush and tangled thickets, expressing its moods with a variety of scolding and chattering notes, cocking its tail from the ridgepole, or on the dead limb in which it is nesting, or bubbling over with its energetic and tuneful song, in any situation and at any time the Wren is vigorous and alive. When feeding, the Wren threads its way through the foliage of low bushes, or in and out of brush heaps like a mouse, protesting against intrusion with a rapid churr, churr, churr or a harsh scolding note like the syllable chee.

The various subspecies of the Bewick Wren are often found either in the same region as the House Wren, or near by. The former breeds generally on wilder chaparral-covered slopes, while the House Wren prefers either forest country, or gardens and buildings. In winter most House Wrens migrate; only a few remain even in southern California. At this season Bewick Wrens move down from the chaparral and occupy the gardens. The House Wren has a shorter tail, a darker throat and breast and no white line over the eye. The song of the House Wren has a greater uniformity of character, not being readily separated into distinct parts like the Bewick’s. The scolding call of the House Wren is harsher and more guttural than the Bewick’s.

424608_660128300680048_1441401891_nHoffmann, Ralph. (1927). Birds of the Pacific States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge.


A Rapid, Joyous Succession of Notes

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

(CC BY-NC 2.0)

They have me surrounded. They roost in the most welcome spots around my house: the eves, the vine engulfing the porch post, the conifer thick and shrubby. They complain loudly when I walk outside at the wrong time. They attend all my seed feeders throughout the day. They have taken to singing proudly from the oaks as all the birds in my yard have begun to do this second week of March.

In this second Ode to Ralph Hoffmann post, I bring attention to this ubiquitous bird, Carpodacus mexicanus, House Finch.

A pair of birds burst from the vines on the porch as the front door is opened, and with harsh protests fly to the nearest tree. The female is grayish brown, heavily streaked on the under parts, the male is bright crimson on head and breast. As you watch them, he bursts into a rapid, joyous succession of notes ending generally in the syllables chwee, whurr. If you find the same pair and their brood later taking toll of your apricots, figs and strawberries, you will feel perhaps that though the presence of so much color and song throughout the year is a delight, you are paying handsomely for it. Be thankful, however, that there is ample compensation for the damage in color and melody; in the East you would have instead the plain appearance and monotonous calls of the English Sparrow. After breeding season House Finches assemble in large flocks and feed on the seeds of weeds in fields and along highways. Single birds or small groups are always on the telephone wires, and often all the lines between several posts are occupied by solid rows. The ordinary call notes range from a rather coarse wheat to high-pitched calls which vary in pitch. The bird is talkative, calling as it flies. At the height of the breeding season the male hops about the indifferent female with tail up, wings drooping, head up and crest feathers raised, singing and making a sound like a sharp intake of breath. The female in the height of the mating period utters a few notes that suggest the male’s song. The plumage of the male varies in the extent and shade of the red, and in many individuals the red is replaced by orange yellow.

The House Finch is the common red bird seen about farms, along highways, and generally near civilization. The California Purple Finch, from which it is difficult to distinguish it, is a bird of cool canyons or coniferous forests, but the two are in certain regions found together. East of the Sierras and Cascades, House Finch and Cassin Finches often occupy the same adjoining territory.

Hoffmann, Ralph. (1927). Birds of the Pacific States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge.


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Western Robin. Planesticus migratorius propinquus

Happy the community where Robins wake a lover of rural sounds with their early morning chorus. This chant is heard only where the soil remains moist enough to breed angle-worms for a Robin to tug at and carry squirming to his brood. Washington and Oregon have Robins in the dooryards, in the blossoming (and ripening!) cherry trees, but in southern California school-children know the Robin chiefly from literature or from a summer camping trip in the mountains. In the fall Robins appear in California lowlands, particularly in olive orchards and pepper trees; here toward spring they practice somewhat halfheartedly their cheerful song. The song is a series of rising and falling phrases, four often constituting a series, which is then repeated or varied. In summer Robins sing most vigorously before it is light, and after continuing for about an hour, disperse to feed. Then there is desultory singing from individuals through the morning, and at dusk another general but not quite so vigorous chorus. The Robin’s common call note, given when perched, is a single low pip, pip often followed by a low tut, tut, which becomes a shrill pip, pip, pip when the bird gives vent to excitement. Another common call note often given in flight is a shrill tsee, tsee. The Robin’s strangest note is a high thin hiss, often given from the ground, and inaudible except within a few feet of the bird. When a Robin flies over an observer, the white feathers under the tail offer a striking contrast to the darker breast. Just after alighting, a Robin pumps its tail vigorously once or twice.

Hoffmann, Ralph. (1927). Birds of the Pacific States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge.

(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Since 1931, and the American Ornithologists’ Union 4th edition, the robin has been scientifically known as Turdus migratorius. Since sometime in the 1970’s (so far as my research has revealed) its English name (aka common name) has been American Robin. English names are recognized world wide, although complete consensus has not yet been reached. Further information can be found at http://www.worldbirdnames.org/ and http://www.aou.org/committees/nacc/.

I have been wanting to share some passages from Ralph Hoffman’s magnificent book and was inspired to begin when I remembered noting that some birds were singing yesterday despite that fact that it is still February. One, of course, was the Robin.

Just for fun, some other names for the Robin:
Catalan: Griva americana
Czech: Drozd stehovavý, drozd stěhovavý
Welsh: Robin America
Danish: Vandredrossel
German: Wanderdrossel
Spanish: Robín Americano
Spanish (Cuba & Dominican Republic): Zorzal Migratorio
Spanish (Mexico): mirlo primavera
Estonian: punarind-rästas
Basque: Griva americana
Finnish: punarintarastas
Faroese: Stroktrøstur
French: Merle d’Amérique
Irish: Smólach Imirce
Galician: Griva americana
Haitian Creole French: Kwèt-kwèt etranje
Hebrew: קיכלי נודד
Hungarian: Vándorrigó
Icelandic: Farþröstur
Italian: Merlo americano
Japanese: komatsugumi
Japanese: コマツグミ
Previous Latin: Merula migratoria
Lithuanian: Strazdas klajoklis
Dutch: Roodborstlijster
Norwegian: Vandretrost
Polish: drozd wedrowny, drozd wędrowny
Portuguese: Tordo-americano
Russian: Странствующий дрозд
Slovak: drozd stahovavý, Drozd st’ahovavý
Slovenian: taščični drozg
Swedish: Vandringstrast
Turkish: Göçmen Ardıç
Chinese: 旅鸫