Friday, May 3, 2013

The Tribes Wake Trilling

“You think it will never happen again. Then, one night in April, the tribes wake trilling.”

The first time I read this line from Mary Oliver’s poem, Pink Moon—The Pond, it thrilled me to the core. You may have felt that excitement, too, as you stepped outside to view the moon or let in the dog and were drenched by the music of frogs singing their hearts out in the cool, wet darkness of spring. The wood frogs are often first, with a series of sharp quacks, almost like a duck. Spring peepers live up to their name with high-pitched peeps. Enough peepers shouting at once sounds almost like sleigh bells. Then there is the “crrreek,” of the western chorus frog, that approximates fingers running over the teeth of a comb.

Why do the calls of amphibians give us such a thrill? Perhaps because it is a sure sign that spring is coming. Or maybe we sense their joy at being animate after a winter of being frozen solid. It might also be that we can feel the urgency in their voices as the males try valiantly to attract a female and procreate before the next guy steals her.

Frogs aren’t the only ones trilling this time of year. Yellow-rumped warblers and pine warblers are two early migrants with their own sort of trilling calls. In my college ornithology class, we decided that pine warblers sound like a UFO landing, and the yellow-rumped warblers have a much more variable call. has excellent recordings of both. They have both arrived back in the northwoods, so listen up!

Frogs and warblers are exciting signs of spring, but on a recent evening, it was another call that pierced right through my window. “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” whistled the white-throated sparrow. Instantly, a flurry of memories swirled around my brain like snowflakes in April.

As a sophomore in college, I had the opportunity to be the teaching assistant for a literature course called “Pens and Paddles in the Northwoods.” We were to spend 15 days in May paddling in the Boundary Waters and reading Thoreau, Olson, and Jaques. I had never been that far north in the spring. My parents, who spent their honeymoon in the Boundary Waters, later traveled there for 100 days, and “dated” during ornithology field trips in college, were ecstatic with anticipation for me to experience it as well.

One evening during spring break, as I was home borrowing gear, my dad went to the box of old records (you know, those round black things that play music), and selected one to put on the turntable. He checked the track list, and placed the needle carefully. Suddenly, the piercing cry of “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” filled the room. “Listen for this,” he said. “You can’t miss it…this is the sound of spring in the North.”

Listen I did. Through swirling snowflakes, cresting whitecaps, dismal rain, and mucky portages, the white-throated sparrows sang us on with unceasing vigor. It was a tough trip during a cold spring, but somehow, being able to identify that bird call renewed my self-confidence each time I heard it.

I have since spent many weeks in the Boundary Waters, and sometimes the white-throated sparrows called with such intensity in the spring that I pleaded with them to give us some peace and quiet. Nowadays, with a full-time job, I don’t get up to canoe country until August, and all I hear are the abbreviated calls of late summer. White-throated sparrows do breed in northern Wisconsin, but I don’t hear them as much here.

It is snowing again today, and I could have started yet another article with a skiing adventure. But it’s May now – and I’m pretty sure you would rather read about frogs and birds.

You might be wondering how all these trilling tribes fare when the weather changes so quickly. There is certainly some mortality, but the frogs can accumulate sucrose (sugar) in their bodies. The sucrose concentrates fluids, and reduces ice crystal formation. Since they can freeze solid without harm for three or more days, this quick cold spell shouldn’t be a concern.

Even though the birds prefer summer temperatures, they always carry their own down jackets. Cold is not an issue, as long as their metabolism has enough fuel. The yellow-rumped warblers glean tiny insects off twigs, and may still be able to find enough food with a foot of snow on the ground, but the white-throated sparrows, who are ground-feeding seed-eaters, will now have a harder time.

Soon spring will really come, however, and all of us will sing a little louder.

“You walk down to the shore. Your coming stills them, but little by little the silence lifts until song is everywhere…”

Plus, looking on the bright side, there is one trilling tribe that has not woken up yet – mosquitoes!

For over 45 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.

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