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"Polly wants a cracker…"

Ruth 0. Richards

Originally published in the Emmitsburg Dispatch
Republished in the Emmitsburg News-Journal

Says the parrot sitting on the hand of a sea Captain, in a comic strip. Can a parrot really talk? We’ve heard them swear or say "shut the door" and other things that we don’t want them to repeat. But can a parrot really talk? He can be taught to imitate sounds as a can a starling, I have read. But, what do those birds sound like off in their own natural environment?

I can’t answer that question. I can tell you what some birds in our area "say" to the world and to each other. There are those more clever than I, who have put the sounds of some birds into words for the purpose of more easily identifying a bird that cannot be seen.

Birding has become, in the last 50 years or so, a competitive sport. Both species and numbers are important on "bird counts". The sounds can also be helpful to the armchair birder who bestirs himself to a brief walk around the yard. What are these sounds as the birds come flying in, some to stay and nest, while others fly on to northern nesting grounds.

I have been out this week and have seen the robins who are already sitting in a tree chosen for a nest, saying to other birds "this is my territory". "Cheer up, cheer up", they sing. And, because it is spring, I do cheer up.

Perhaps someone has told me he’d like to hear a towhee as maybe he doesn’t know what to listen for. After having been told that the towhee says "drink your tea", I have no trouble putting those words to sounds I hear when a towhee is in my yard. And, in the game of counting birds, identifying a bird by its voice is "having seen it".

Besides its nesting song, the cardinal has a whistle. I once heard of a woman, having heard the whistle, became indignant because she thought a group of boys she had just walked by had whistled at her.

Who doesn’t know a mourning dove when it "mourns and mourns", telling the world just how sorrowful he feels. When I was in college, mourning doves would come in the spring just before sunup and sit in a tree outside my dorm window and "mourn". I grew to hate the sound because it woke me each morning before I wanted to be awake.

A bird that once was abundant in Frederick County was the meadow lark, a handsome bird with a yellow breast with a black "v" mark. It lived nearly all year long in this area. My oldest daughter, at the age of 7, announced one morning, after hearing one from her bedroom window, "that bird says my name, Kathy Richards". And, so it did. That is the way I now describe the song of the meadow lark.

In 1954, when we first moved into our house near the Mount, we could hear the night time "whip-por-will". No longer do we hear that bird either. Perhaps the sound of traffic has drowned it out.

One morning, as I walked for the paper, I heard what I thought to be a flock of blue jays screaming across the sky. What a noise they make! As the "flock" came closer I realized that I had been tricked. It was not a blue jay at all, but rather a red-tailed hawk, who can sound very much like the blue jay at times.

Another loud one is the mockingbird,  a handsome gray bird that sits on the roof top or the very top of a tree, sending forth a repertoire of songs of other birds. I have no idea how many different songs he has on his program, or even if all mock the same birds. Some of the songs I recognize, others I’m not even sure if they are really the songs of the other birds.

"Konk-ler-ree", "konk-ler-ree". We’ve got a red winged blackbird in the marshy weeds of the driveway. Now that he’s chosen a nesting site, he’s waiting for another bird, not nearly as handsome as he, to become his mate in the site he has chosen.

"Pee-wee-pee-a-wee". A small, gray flycatcher does just that — catches and eats flies and other flying insects. They are his food. Watch and listen, he’ll be along soon.

Every country kid knows the screech owl. Turn down the sound and go out tonight and listen, you’ll hear him. And when you do, give him an imitation of his call and I can promise you that you’ll get an answer as he flies closer to you.

One night in the distant past, while I lay in bed with the windows wide open, I heard what had to have been a large flock of birds migrating to their summer nesting grounds. I did not and could not identify a single bird sound. I knew however, that what I was hearing was migrating birds.

Chandler Robbins, a professional birder from the Patuxent Fish and Wildlife Service, has the amazing ability to hear and to recognize the sounds of hundreds of birds worldwide. He can stand outside at night and as birds fly over identify the individual bird sounds.

If I have captured your interest, and perhaps you want to learn more about birds, buy yourself a bird book and a pair of binoculars. If you do these things, "Voila" you have become a bird watcher. Congratulations!

Have your own memories of Emmitsburg of old? 
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net

Read other stories by Ruth Richards