By Keith Michael
Millie’s bounding “corgi kibble dance” inspired by a small handful of kibble tossed onto the floor is just the distraction needed for her while I sneak out the door.
I’m on my way to the Hudson River Park Trust offices at Pier 40 for a meeting planning another summer of Sunday morning nature walks that I have co-led with Walter H. Laufer, urban naturalist extraordinaire, for what will now be our eighth season. (Thanks for asking: The free walks are every Sunday morning June through September, meeting at 9:00 am at the Christopher Street fountain—admittedly sometimes dry—in Hudson River Park. We usually walk north through the park for about an hour and a half extemporizing on the noteworthy flora and fauna along the way: trees, birds, butterflies, wildflowers, mushrooms, so much to see. Rain or shine. Just show up.)
A little south of Pier 45 I have my monthly “ah ha” moment when the subject for my next WestView article flies out of the ether. Seemingly amplified from the top-most branch of a Honey Locust tree is the unmistakable “Drink Your Teeeeea” recitative of an Eastern Towhee. It’s unusual to see one in the neighborhood. Then the singer takes wing. This flashy black, orange, and white bird, though in the sparrow family, is hardly an LBJ (little brown job) to be overlooked. True, in their search for hidden delicacies they are more likely to be seen tossing dry leaves around on a forest floor, where their coloring is a remarkable camouflage, but when one is in a declamatory mood, look to the treetops for its conspicuous concert venue.
Identifying bird songs can be even more mystifying than identifying birds. However, hearing any bird song is often the introduction to knowing that a bird is lurking nearby asking to be identified. Of course, learning to give a proper name to a bird and linking a song to that bird’s name is a game of pride for the birder not for the bird: A Towhee by any other name would sing as sweetly.
Like folk tales passed from one generation to the next, birders share mnemonic phrases that pop to mind when hearing a bird’s song which then illuminates the lore of its singer. Once one hears these translations, it’s difficult to hear anything else. The Eastern Towhee’s “Drink Your Teeeeea” is one of my favorites with its furtive tremolo on the final syllable like gargling before swallowing. Though admittedly, and confusingly, depending on how chatty the Towhee is feeling that day, sometimes they repeat “Drink…Drink… Drink” or “Drink Your…Drink Your” or less demandingly, just “Teeeeea…Teeeeea…Teeeeea!”
A common wintry bird song in the West Village is the plaintive “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or the more geographically appropriate transcription “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” of the White-throated Sparrow. Since spring has continued to be cold and damp you may still hear these repeated notes coming from backyards and balconies before these helpfully named sparrows head north to, yes, Canada, to raise their families. (I haven’t been able to find out who that elderly Sam Peabody so memorialized might have been.)
Not to be confused with the “Poor Me” lament of the Black-capped Chickadee, another seasonal serenade is the convivial ”Peter, Peter, Peter” of the gray-crested Tufted Titmouse as it flits from branch to branch, tree to tree, and block to block. On grumpier overcast days, their complaining scolds sound like the collective grumblings of a packed subway train after the announcement, “We are being held in the station by the train dispatcher. We should be moving shortly. Thank you for your patience.”
During spring migration on Perry Street, I look forward to the sweet, sweet sound of the Yellow Warbler’s “Sweet, Sweet, Sweeter, Sweetest”, the American Goldfinch bounding through the air proclaiming “Po-ta-to Chip” (a delicious four-syllable alliteration that captures both the cadence and coloring of this lively songster), the remarkably booming crescendo of “teacher, Teacher, TEACHER” from the otherwise secretive Ovenbird, and the one-night-stand licentiousness of the White-eyed Vireo’s “Pick up a REAL chick!”
The liquid “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer” or “Cheery, Cheery, Cheery” of the Northern Cardinal is a familiar year-round song within the delivery radius of WestView. Again, listen up, and you may even hear dueling songsters from chimney to fire escape as the plucky red males settle their summer real estate disputes.
As I head back home, dawdling in the warming morning sun, I’m reminded that every Millie vocalization somehow sounds like: “Feed me. Feed me.” Point taken.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.