It is the last day of an almost non-existent Winter in Denver, and as I walked my dogs through the park earlier we were surprised to find someone calling to me, “Hey, cutie! Hey, cutie!” Well, maybe it wasn’t to me, but I looked up anyway. Where was it coming from? I saw nothing except the still-bare branches of a cottonwood silhouetted against a bright sky. “Hey cutie! Hey cutie!”
Although I could not see the source of this call, I knew the caller was wearing a black cap. It wasn’t really a come-on, which is good because the caller was male and he would have been really messed up if he had been directing it to me. He was a black-capped Chickadee.
You might take it as a sign of Spring, but in fact the Chickadees are often here all Winter. Popular depictions often show them frolicking in snow, something we have had precious little of this season. But while we can see them just about any time of year, maybe today’s encounter is a sign of Spring, or at least the onset of mating season for Chickadees. In most years, it would be a bit early, but this season was hardly Winter anyway, with record-breaking high temperatures and desert dryness. Still, the Chickadee as harbinger of the growing season was a welcome sound, if not sight, today.
There was even the characteristic call of a Red-winged Blackbird, something I strongly associate with Summer. And the shrill staccato call of a Northern Flicker (our version of a Woodpecker), which while not particularly attractive, is certainly better than the machine gun rattle when it tries to find those tasty grubs in your metal rain gutters.
Truth is, the only birds I saw today were the ever present crows and the ducks in our neighborhood stream (“Goldsmith Gulch”). But I heard them and knew they were there. Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” But listening is a major part of observing as well. There is the sound of the wind and thunder, gurgling water and rain, the flutter of bird wings and their calls and songs, cicadas on a summer evening, crickets and any number of other insects, the chatter of squirrels and sometimes even the “yip yip” of coyotes. Just because my — and maybe your — main interest is in the skies above, doesn’t mean that we should ignore things much closer to us in Nature.
[We may not be able to hear stars and clouds — two of my favorite things to observe — but even the great Johannes Kepler discussed the “music of the spheres” and wrote music based on the motions of the planets. Personally, I prefer somewhat more melodic works as played on Seattle’s King FM and particularly their Evergreen Channel, which are available online anywhere.]
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.