Wednesday, September 06, 2006

hummingbird feeder : David Horst column: Positives of country life merit fair hearing

Some people move to the country for the view. What you learn once you're out here is that there are beautiful soundscapes as well.

I awoke to that realization one recent morning. It wasn't the concept that woke me, but the "whoo-who-whoooo" of a great-horned owl.

Cool late-summer breezes carry the country sounds in through the open windows. To hear them, you only need to be still an extra moment before jumping into the morning workday routine.

Breakfast on the screen porch may be accompanied by the whir of tiny wing beats if the hummingbird takes his morning nourishment when you do. City folk may believe hummingbirds have no call, but that just means they haven't sat still enough to hear the scolding little "tchuck" they make when you eat your cereal too close to the window-mounted hummingbird feeder.

Last weekend, we heard the distinctly intense squawk that says the approaching woodpecker is not a downy, not a hairy, but a — yes, there it is — a pileated, Wisconsin's king woodpecker. It is a difference as discernable as asphalt from concrete that you can't help but pick up out here.

The difference is as distinct as that extra warble in the honking overhead on a late March day that signals that a flock not of Canada geese but of tundra swans is about to break into view. They carry with them another sound, one so delightfully subtle that I count it among my favorites. It is the soft whistle of wind slipping between flight feathers that you hear, if you listen, as the swans pass low overhead.

My personal sign of spring is a sound. It is the joyous trill of a red-winged blackbird boldly declaring his territory from a perch atop a cattail. For others, it's the spring peepers — tiny frogs with voices as big as the night.

Lately, up on the sand hill we call home, we've been treated to the comic sound of turkeys clumsily flying up to their perches in the upper reaches of the oak trees out front.

We get a daily serenade from the sandhill cranes, at least during the warmer months. It starts with a discordant bugling, like what city dwellers get from the bickering couple in the house too close next door, but it transforms into a soaring melody as the mates find each other's rhythm and pitch and unite their voices into a unison call.

Country living has its unpleasant sounds — the drone of the riding lawnmower, the constant hum of mosquitoes, midnight barking from dogs agitated by a passing raccoon and the squeal of teen drivers on straight rural roads.

Because we raise llamas, our open windows also let in alarm calls in the dark of night. Llamas rouse the herd to possible danger with a noise I can best describe as a shriller version of a horse whinnying. The alarm is almost certainly notification that a deer has gotten uncomfortably close to the pasture fence, but it still stirs you from bed to peer into the inky blackness for signs of trouble.

The dry oak leaves that carpet the woods amplify footfalls so squirrels sound like deer. I heard that exaggerated rustling one night when I had the dog out for her before-bed constitutional. I stood on the concrete apron of the garage watching as a fawn, still wearing its speckles, emerged from the woods, looked around in caution and confusion and tip-toed onto the concrete between me and the open door.

The fawn seemed headed into the garage when it circled back to the spot in the woods where it had shuffled out. Luckily, the dog was upwind, more engaged by smells than the sound of rustling leaves.

The screech of a hawk, the gentle rattle of aspen leaves tossed by wind, the mournful tone of a distant moo, these are all part of the rich aural views of country living. Taking time to listen, that's just sound thinking.

David Horst writes a biweekly column on nature. E-mail him at


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