Chirp, chirp! Chirp, chirp, chirp! We had stopped to stretch our legs at a roadside rest near Ogden, Utah, so of course I pulled out my binoculars to look for birds. Walking the short path to a scenic overlook, I kept hearing this loud chirping, but I couldn’t find any birds I could ascribe it too. There were the usual American Robins, American Crows, and Black-billed Magpies—but none of those chirp.
There were also these adorable little ground squirrels. They would boldly emerge from their tunnels (reminiscent of prairie dog towns), obviously hoping for handouts, and… wait—were they chirping at me? They were! Guess I wasn’t going to find an exotic bird, but I did get some cute photos.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been fooled by imitation bird noises. Other squirrels, especially chipmunks, make sounds that could easily be mistaken for a bird. For example, Chickarees (aka Red Mountain Squirrels, left), high-altitude tree squirrels, utter a trill that had me thoroughly confused the first time I heard it. Even our ubiquitous Fox Squirrels can chirp like birds.
Prairie Dogs earn their name by barking, not chirping, but birders unfamiliar with them could be taken in. Bats not only chirp, they fly, making them doubly likely to deceive us.
I once made a strenuous cross-country climb up a high mountain pass to search for the chirping birds I heard. I hauled myself up boulders, waded through willow carrs, and crept under stunted conifers only to discover that the rocks were full of piping pikas, not birds. Oops. Oh well, pikas are interesting too.
This pseudo-bird mimicry can be very frustrating. One of my nemesis birds (a bird I’ve been fruitlessly searching for over the last ten years) is a Grasshopper Sparrow. I’ve gone to Grasshopper Sparrow habitat. I’ve studied Grasshopper Sparrow recordings—they really do sound like grasshoppers. I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize one if I ever see one. So far, however, whenever I’ve heard a grasshopper-like noise and carefully followed it to its source, I’ve found a grasshopper, not a sparrow. (Maybe I should start listing insects.) Of course, crickets chirp as well.
If you ask someone what frogs say, they’ll most likely answer that frogs croak, or say, “Ribbitt, ribbitt.” That may be true of most frogs, but certainly not all of them. I did a lot of research before our trip to Puerto Rico. Mostly I studied my new field guide, but I also learned about the 16 species of coquí frogs, who spend the night repeating their name, “ko-kee’, ko-kee’. “Hah,” I thought. “You won’t fool me!”
Sure enough, coquí frogs were everywhere. They were terribly hard to actually see, being only an inch long and very skittish, but their small size was more than compensated for by the racket they made every night.
Unfortunately, I had learned about the coquí, but not the other tree frogs, and (you guessed it)—tree frogs can sound an awful lot like birds.
So can geckos. Unique among lizards, they are able to make chirping sounds that could easily be mistaken for some exotic tropical species of bird. Since most of us don’t regularly visit the topics, we’re all the more likely to be misled. I guess the moral of this story is, “All that chirps is not feathered.”
Actually, I don’t mind discovering that my “bird” is some other kind of animal. While I enjoy birds, I like other species just as much and take a similar delight in seeing them. It’s all good!