Cuckoos lead the way in bird calls

The "cuckoo clock" in the dining room below began counting the hours. We had to be at breakfast by six, so I counted along with it. The previous evening, we had arrived at the small inn somewhere in Scotland's Outer Hebrides at a very late hour. As the clock announced each hour, I buried deeper into the covers confident of a few more hours of sleep. Then it chimed for the eighth time and I was wide awake. "Get up! We've overslept!" My ever-practical spouse refused to panic and reached for his watch. It was about three in the morning and first light was breaking. "It's those dratted cuckoos!" The two large birds were sitting in the tree outside our bedroom window. No, I didn’t go back to sleep.

That was a long time ago but my fascination for the way some birds say their names or actually sound like the phrases used to identify their calls, is still with me. The European cuckoo’s call was responsible for the creation of a clock that has been world famous for centuries. Not every bird goes down in history for its voice but some are almost as good as the cuckoo. That bird came to mind recently because this is the summer when some interesting voices have been interfering with my sleep.

One morning, it was a whistle that broke the early morning quiet. “Bobwhite!” No, this member of the quail family doesn’t saying its name as distinctly as the cuckoo, but the two-note whistle with its rising inflection once heard is never forgotten. We don’t have bobwhite in our yard or even in this part of the state but I know what I heard. When a reader who lives a few miles away reported having two bobwhite in their yard a couple of weeks earlier, it was a confirmation.

It was disappointing not to see this member of the quail family, but at least we knew it had visited us and was probably an escape from a game bird collection. However, the Northwest is reputed to have a small population of introduced birds. The most recent vocal encounter occurred when we were at our cabin on the Olympic Peninsula’s Hoh River. This time the bird didn’t say its name, but the call was easy to recognize. The phrases or words used to describe a particular bird’s song or call can create some disagreement because not everyone hears sounds exactly the same. Some bird voices, however, are easy to agree on.

It was dark and well after midnight when the calling outside the cabin forced my eyes open. The bird wasn’t far away and it was calling over and over. “Whoo-cooks-for-you!” Or “Whoo-whoo-cooks-for-you!” There was a smug smile on my face as I lay there listening to the barred owl’s chant. Two, if not three, birds were talking. One sounded young. It wasn’t calling the familiar phrase but was screeching in a garbled and almost whining manner. It sounded like it was begging to be fed. A third call, that of an adult, appeared to come from off in the distance.

We’ve known that barred owls have crossed the state and are present in the coastal forests, but this was a first for the cabin. It was interesting but also a bit of a worry. The owls that have always awakened us in the past have been the little screech owls. Barred owls prey on the smaller owls. Hopefully the peninsula’s forests are big enough for everyone and we will still hear the screech owls later this year.

Many if not most bird calls are a challenge to match with their given identifying phrases, but some are close to perfect.

Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. (or e-mail joanpcarson@comcast.net)