Birds: The music of the North Woods

  • Article by: MARK NEUZIL
  • Updated: April 18, 2011 - 5:53 AM

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

In the North Woods, the birds will tell you when dawn is coming.

On cloudy, dark nights when sleep is interrupted by an inconvenient tree root under the sleeping bag, I wake up wondering if it's time to get up. The birds let me know.

If I don't hear them -- owls excepted -- I fall back asleep. If I hear a white-throated sparrow's chirrup, I start thinking about unfolding myself out of the tent.

I hate carrying a watch in the BWCA, but even if I do I can ignore it by paying attention to the sounds of the wilderness. There may be those who associate music in canoe country with the old chansons of the voyageurs, but to me the symphony comes from the birds.

As ornate as any baroque composition and as memorable as a drinking ditty, the songs of the birds are the music of the north.

Various authorities count 190 or so bird species as regulars in the Boundary Waters; 110 are visitors when the weather is warm; only 18 stay all year.

Ten drop by only in the winter, and the rest migrate through. The only invasive bird species with a breeding population in the BWCA is the starling.

Woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees and the raven are permanent residents, but for many, the eerie cries of the seasonal visitor, the loon, are the signature sound of the north, both the beginning and end of what they recognize.

As an ornithologically challenged person (I was well clear of college before I realized a wake-robin was not a bird), I know what I like and I like what I know, not unlike most music fans. I like owls, ruffed grouse and loons; all remind me of the canoe country, in different ways and from different circumstances.

On a trip to Slim Lake, on a small island near the western shore, my daughters spotted several owl pellets, all in a small clearing under a few tall pines. Kids are much better than adults are at noticing things on the ground, perhaps because they are built closer to it.

We decided to camp nearby, and a barred owl kept us company well into the wee hours. Barred owls are common in the BWCA -- they sing the "who cooks, who cooks, who cooks for you" song -- but you can also find the great grey owl, the boreal owl and the great horned owl nesting and wintering over.

With a 5-foot wingspan, the great gray is nearly as big as a loon, although its size is deceptive because it's all feathers -- grays usually weigh less than 4 pounds. (An adult loon can weigh 12 pounds or more.)

Pellets are owl puke, the explanation of which causes no end of snickering, chuckling and outright laughter among the young ones, part of nature's sense of humor. The real fun begins when the pellets are broken open and a mouse skeleton is inside, although on this day the pellets were boring.

Biologists assert that pellets are not an accurate assessment of an owl's diet -- larger prey tends to be overrepresented in them. As territorial as owls are, it's probable that the pellets we found that day came from a very few birds, perhaps only one.

There are superstitions surrounding owls, including their alleged wisdom, but we know there are smarter birds. It's folklore that an owl can rotate its head 360 degrees, but it's true that the eyes of an owl are "fixed" in its head, which means the owl swivels its head from side to side to see.

It's a fact that eyelashes are uncommon on most birds but prevalent on owls.

The familiar sounds of the ruffed grouse are not vocal; it is the thup-thup-thup-thup of their wing beats that either sounds like a muffled kettledrum or a very, very small helicopter.

It was once thought that the grouse was hitting itself or a log with its wing action, but it is now well-established that their wings hit nothing -- air rushes in to fill the temporary vacuum caused by the wing beats.

Drumming can be hard to pinpoint. The noise echoes off the trees and rocks and could be coming from anywhere, or everywhere.

And, like loons returning to the same nest, grouse use the same logs and small hills for drumming over the years. If you get lucky enough to see a grouse drumming, notice how it holds its head still -- like an accomplished Irish dancer.

On the portage to Duncan Lake a few years ago, I watched a female grouse and several older chicks wander back and forth for quite a while before I realized that the mother was pecking at the gravel on the trail to help her grind buds and nuts in her gizzard.

Now, if I am paying attention, seeing a grouse on a portage is not uncommon; they also eat the clovers and grasses that grow there.

And their toughness has been verified. In his classic 1932 work "The Birds of Minnesota," Tom Roberts recounts a fish and game report from Gemmell in Koochiching County of a ruffed grouse that "had been choked to death in an attempt to swallow a garter snake."

Snake and bird were found together in a deat embrace.

There is a difference between toughness and a fatal mistake; once while out walking near Isabella we came across the body of a merlin, still warm. The little falcon did not have a visible mark on it, but a glance overhead at a power line revealed the source of its demise. Hitting a power line in full flight meant the power line won.

During years of family trips and guiding college students, helping BWCA visitors remember bird songs sometimes meant borrowing folklorish phrases. The whitethroat's song, with its distinct, clear-whistled sound, was always "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody."

Then a student from the Quetico side of the region corrected me: "He's really saying 'My sweet Canada Canada Canada.'"

While traveling the region by canoe, I've noticed that the skies often grow quiet at dusk, or even before sunset, and then the first loon pierces the silence.

Next are the replies, and what follows is what I imagine to be a civil conversation if not a symphony, although I would not push that metaphor too far, because the calls-and-responses quickly overlap and tumble in on each other and you can't tell where the first movement begins and the fourth ends.

When my oldest daughter was 8 or 9, she could imitate the pitch, including the tremolo, of the loon, and the loons would sing back. One day, on a paddle up the aforementioned Slim Lake, she carried on a concert with a pair of loons that must have meant something to them, although we'll never know what.

I feel comfortable calling those loons a pair because biologists tell us they are monogamous; they arrive in May and leave for Florida and other points south in late September. Some have been known to live for 20 or 30 years, although their average lifespan is 7 to 10.

Would we see these again? By the time my daughter became a teenager, her voice changed and she couldn't match the loons' song any longer.

Little girls don't stay nine 9 forever, sadly enough, but loons remain, and their song lingers on.

Mark Neuzil teaches journalism and environmental studies at the University of St. Thomas.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


  • about opinion

  • The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.

  • Submit a letter or commentary
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters




question of the day

Poll: Do you support or oppose the multi-national deal with Iran over nuclear weaponry?

Weekly Question