Returning birds add their songs to the spring’s chorus


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Eastern Towhee sings from a limb on a sapling.

As we welcome April, I’ve noticed the additions to the early morning chorus produced by the birds in residence around my home. From American robins and Eastern towhees to song sparrows and Carolina chickadees, all our feathered friends produce their own unique serenades to greet each new day.

Songbirds sing to attract mates, discourage rivals, establish territories and for a variety of other reasons.

Of course, the songs of birds play important roles in their daily lives. Half of the world’s bird species are known as passerines, or songbirds; in itself a good indication of the importance of song in the day-to-day routines of birds.

The scientific definition of a songbird is that it is a species with a specialized voice box known as a syrinx. This amazing organ allows for the production of some of the melodic and complex songs characteristic of birds such as wood thrush, Northern cardinal and Carolina wrens. Many of the warblers — a family of birds that should be beginning to returning to the region — produce a diverse range of songs.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Boat-tailed Grackle sings from a South Carolina wetland.

Among other purposes, attracting mates, intimidating rivals and signaling territorial borders are some of the reasons birds sing. For human listeners, it’s easy to think that birds also sing for the sheer joy of producing these amazing choruses. That belief, however, is probably based more on the ear of the beholder.

We would probably be unaware of the presence of many birds if it wasn’t for their vocalizations. This fact is particularly true of nocturnal birds or denizens of inaccessible habitats such as swamps and marshes.

I was reminded of this fact when Facebook friend Kenneth Oakes sent me a message on March 23 about the arrival of the first whip-poor-will of the spring.


A painting of a Whip-poor-will by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

“A whip-poor-will has just arrived,” he wrote in his message. “It is about 12 days early.” Kenneth noted that usually the arrival date for whip-poor-wills, as well as for hummingbirds, is about April 5.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever seen them arrive in this area,” Kenneth wrote. For the past two years, he noted that whip-poor-wills have been a week to 12 days late in arriving in the spring.

Kenneth is not the only person who has reported “early bird” whip-poor-wills. Brookie Potter, who lives with his wife, Jean, near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, heard two calling whip-poor-wills near his home on Easter Sunday, March 27. He reported his observation on bristol-birds, an online list-serve forum for sharing area bird sightings.

Ironically, the whip-poor-will is not one of the world’s many passerine, or songbird, species. Nevertheless, this bird’s nocturnal serenades are one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember sitting on my grandparents’ front porch to listen for hours to the whip-poor-wills as they sang the syllables of their own names from the nearby edges of the woodlands.

Kenneth also reported that he thinks the juncos have departed. “Winter is not over until they leave,” he wrote. “Let’s hope for an early spring.”

All indications, such as the early arrivals of birds such as whip-poor-wills, are that an early spring could be in the works. This is also the time of year when I keep my eyes open for the arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbirds of spring. In fact, I put out my sugar water feeders the last week of March.

According to websites that track the annual northward migration of these tiny birds, the first hummingbirds should start arriving in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina any day now. As always, I invite readers to share with me the date and time of these first sightings.

Email me at or send me a message on Facebook to notify me when you observe your first hummingbird of spring 2016.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of Wood Ducks visited the fish pond several times in March and April.

While I haven’t yet seen hummingbirds, plenty of other birds have been making appearances. My fish pond has been visited twice by pairs of wood ducks. My other recent sightings have included tree swallows, brown thrashers and chipping sparrows. I love spring for the simple fact you never know when a new bird will surprise you with an unanticipated arrival.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

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