Apr 25 2009

Nyerk/Tsuck: small brown birds of Cottonmouth County

This poor thing was getting buffetted pretty severely before the winds carried it off, tail over beak, into the wild blue. Female summer tanager (?), Cottonmouth County TX, April 2009

This poor thing was getting buffetted pretty severely before the winds carried it off, tail over beak, into the wild blue. Female summer tanager (?), Cottonmouth County TX, April 2009

There are some pretty flashy birds flitting around the Spinster Ornithology Compound, but few of them ever seem inclined pose for our cameras. My Gaudy Bird Perching Reticence theory is that, because the air is solid live oak pollen at the moment and it’s blasting nonstop at 30 MPH, the branches they perch on are not guaranteed, in weather like this, to stay attached to the trees. So they biff off lest they find themselves riding a twig of death on a downdraft to hell.

Alternatively, there are those who would aver that the weather has nothing to do with it. I might, they observe, get more exotic shots if I weren’t too lazy to lug the giant bird lens around instead of just keeping it pointed out the lab window on a tripod and setting it to go off every 15 seconds, just in case a cormorant or a blue booby or a Peking duck happens to fly in and perch on the ledge. Admittedly, this method has been producing a somewhat unremarkable result. I may have to rethink it.

Meanwhile, I give you the plain brown Eastern Phoebe. The Eastern Phoebe just laughs at our ceaseless tornadoes. It cleverly nests in an I-beam down at the Spinster motor pool garage, and hangs around on solid objects like this rusty steel pipe fence. It’s no Painted Bunting, but it does something no other bird does. It says “fee-bee, fee-bee.”

The stalwart Eastern Phoebe. Cottonmouth County, TX. April 2009.

The stalwart Eastern Phoebe. Cottonmouth County, TX. April 2009.

That’s right. This post is nothing but an excuse to put up pictures of the only birds I’ve been able to snap recently. Small brown birds.

Maybe you could give a rat’s ass about small brown birds. I was once like you.

Before founding the world-famous Spinster Ornithology Compound, I was a dolt and an ignoramus. I lived in the city and had no time for small brown birds. I had places to go and straight girls to convert. When I gave any thought to birds at all, it was to be annoyed that their poop was always all over the last empty table at Jo’s. Furthermore, I believed that every bird that wasn’t an ostrich — that is, all small brown birds — were sparrows. One dismisses sparrows on accounta their ubiquity (this is a grave mistake, perhaps because sparrows are in fact an invading alien cyborg species and perhaps not; it remains to be seen, but in any event that’s another story).

But you’d be amazed how many small brown birds aren’t sparrows at all. For example, the Carolina wren.

Small, check. Brown, check. Sparrow, nope. Carolina Wren, Cottonmouth County TX, April 2009.

Small, check. Brown, check. Sparrow, nope. Carolina Wren, Cottonmouth County TX, April 2009.

This wren usually implements a cloaking device, so feel free to congratulate me on having spotted one. It creeps up tree trunks eatin’ bugs, which is a behavior I wouldn’t mind being able emulate in these tough times. Hordes of them invisibly infest the real estate directly outside my bedroom every morning. They go “chirt-chirt-chirt-chirt-chirt-chirt-chirt-chirt” really loud. It’s the kind of noise that, if you hit the sack early the night before, compels you spring from your TempurPedic singing “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” but if you have a hangover, it turns you into a wrenicidal maniac.

“Chirt” is the official designation, by the way. I did not make it up. Birds of North America, the bird-nerd website of record, also lists the following interesting phrases in connection with the Carolina wren: cheer, ti-dink, dit, chatter, rasp, chirt, pi-zeet, scee, pee, growl, nyerk, and tsuck.


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  1. dd

    Are those the ones that sound like machine guns sorta? The wrens I mean?

  2. Orange

    Hey! What happened to the red tanager in the RSS feed? It has been replaced by a blurry yellow bird here.

    A bird that says “pi-zeet”? Is that Snoop Dogg-speak for “Pete”?

    And “nyerk”? That sounds awfully tri-Stoogean to me.

  3. Twisty

    The tanager jpeg was incorrectly labeled in my fotoliberry, and was posted in error. Geez, it was only up for about 15 seconds — how did you manage to see it?

    The blurry bird more authentically illustrates the gale force wind situation.

  4. Twisty

    Are those the ones that sound like machine guns sorta? The wrens I mean?

    They do make pretty wild electronic video game noise. But it doesn’t sound like a machine gun, at least to me.

  5. Sutton

    My wrens say “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle!” And I have Tufted Titmice who scream at the top of their lungs, “Peter, Peter, PETE!”

    No machine guns here.

  6. elm

    Nyert? That’s my morning call. Stupid sound-poaching small brown bird.

  7. Pinko Punko

    Maybe it is a machine laser ray gun of obstreperon particles, harmlessly deflected by the sad mass of our universe.

  8. thebewilderness

    We are currently inundated with adorable muttering nuthatches.

    An ornithologically challenged friend of mine calls them all LBJs, little brown jobbers. The learning curve is daunting.

  9. rootlesscosmo

    Nyerk is where I grew up. Morningside Heights, to be specific.

  10. Comrade PhysioProf

    I had places to go and straight girls to convert.

    How’d you do with that?

  11. zwarte

    Carolina wrens go “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger,Cheeseburger” and they are loud!

    Bird watchers are a cult that is gradually taking over power from the hook and bullet bubbas. Just watch.

  12. Twisty

    “How’d you do with that?”

    Typical dude!

  13. Laughingrat

    A pal of mine reported that ornithologists really do call these types “Little Brown Birds,” as a sort of shorthand. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s certainly charming. LBBs!

    Around the apartment complex shrubberies, most of our LBBs really are sparrows, who are hilarious and well worth watching, especially when they’re feeling competitive (and when aren’t they?) or when it’s hot and there’s a nice dry dust-waller for them to waller in. Waller, waller, waller. They love a good waller. One of the cutest things you will ever see.

    The cardinals around here make sharp pipping noises (lovely to hear at evening and right after a rain) and also shout “BIRDY BIRDY BIRDY BIRD BIRD BIRD.” It’s a great old time here in Columbus, I tell you what.

  14. slythwolf

    It is frankly amazing how many different kinds of little brown birds there are. My favorite place to watch them is actually the Kent County–er, excuse me, the “Gerald R. Ford” International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they must, I guess, get in through the departure gates or something, because there’s a whole flock of them living in the food court. I’m not sure what-all they are, but I’m fairly sure some of them are indeed actual sparrows.

  15. slythwolf

    I should say, the “Gerald R. Ford” “International” Airport.

  16. magriff

    Boring Brown Birds that are Everywhere. My favorite kind.

  17. speedbudget

    I wish bird books would put in the little mpegs or whatever of bird sounds, kind of like those god-awful cards that have music in them. Because I don’t know about you guys, but “tsuck” really doesn’t tell me what the birds sound like. Even when I read their descriptions and I know what the bird sounds like, I can’t wrap my mind around it. We need a better onomatopoetic vocabulary or little sound bytes in the bird book.

    Also, for those of you who remember the blue bird drama last year, you will be happy to know they are giving it another shot. Dad has cleared all the brush from around the box in a wide radius and put motor oil in a neat circle around the pole hoping to thwart any chickicidal snakes. We are keeping our fingers crossed.

    One interesting thing, there’s three of them nesting. So stick that in the “traditional” marriage butt! Blue birds have group matings!

  18. Shelly

    Speedbudget (and anyone else wondering what on earth a Carolina Wren sounds like),

    Lots of birdsongs, including that of the Carolina Wren, can be found here.

    There are also photos and sound files for identifying birds here, but I didn’t see a Carolina wren.

  19. yttik

    I’m in bird heaven up here. Seagulls, crows, blue jays, and eagles, hundreds of eagles. And lots of little birds, robins and finches, and goodness knows what. I have a couple birdhouses hanging that they move into every spring, so they’re flitting around on my porch.

    They are noisy! They start screaming at me first thing in the morning until I give up on sleeping. There’s a Disney scene with a princess dancing around with all the woodland creatures, kissing the birds that land delicately on her arms. Yeah, that’s not me first thing in the morning. I look more like Medusa, hissing and scowling at the birds until the coffee starts to kick in.

  20. Eileen

    Yesterday we had some goldfinches on our lawn and my bird book informed me that the sound they make is “po-ta-to-chip”.

    Around here we have always called them “LBJ” — Little Brown Jobs.

  21. Twisty

    Hey Speedbudget, I just got that iBird application for my iPhone; it’s pretty much a searchable field guide with audio. It’s a teeny bit buggy, and contains spelling errors (the horror) but I effin love it anyway. I can type in a color, a month, a body shape, a bill size, the word “Texas” etc, and it’ll return all the possible birds. It’s worth gettin an iPhone for, if you get a big bang out of birds and don’t feel like lugging a book around with you everywhere.

    There has to be bird audio available in other forms, because about 4 years ago I did a bird census here at the ranchette with this bird guy from the uni, and he had all the bird calls on his iPod.

  22. larkspur

    One of my jobs is scrubbing a bird bath every week. I walk the dog, brush the dog, load up the recycling can and garbage can, and haul them down the hill to the road, then I get out the vinegar and baking soda and scrub that birdbath till it sparkles. I rinse it thoroughly, refill it, and have been told that all manner of fancy birdles have joined the LBBs in frequenting the place. This makes me happy. When I’m happy I often call out, “BaRACK! BaRACK!” No, not really, but there is a bird – probably several – around here who does.

  23. Ron Sullivan

    There are CD song guides; we keep a couple of them in the car because it came magically equipped with a kickass sound system. If I had an iPhone… All day long I’d biddybiddybum OK shut up now brain. I’d be interested in seeing the results of that census, pretty please. I offer bribes of your choice.

    Birders do talk about LBJs and so do mushroomers. Posy-sniffers talk about DYCs: Damn Yellow Composites.

    In one of the old fieldguides, I think Peterson, the call of one of those indistinguishable gray flycatchers is rendered as “an explosive ‘piz-ZA!'”

    Wrens got vocabulary! You want to really be given What For, get close to a marsh wren. My goodness.

  24. larkspur

    Oh, Ron. Are there any birds that eat earworms?

  25. Antares

    Five or six years ago, in the village next to the one I live in, a set of captive Venezuelan parrots were either set free or escaped their cage. Since then the number of these birds has shot up, growing exponentially every year (so says the local ajuntament), and their territory has expanded to include my little town too. (I dont think there are any predators for them).

    These parrots are large, roost in both fir and palm trees, and are beautiful shades of green with some yellow thrown in. What I find most remarkable about them is how incredibly loud they are. They fly low and fast (usually in sets of three), and while they do, they practically bark at each other. Even when theyre on the ground in the park, they’re constantly yelling at each other, and trees full of them are a wonderfully impossible cacophony.

    I hold out the secret hope that some of them will eventually choose to live in my backyard.

  26. Comrade PhysioProf

    I can type in a color, a month, a body shape, a bill size, the word “Texas” etc, and it’ll return all the possible birds.

    Wow! That is so cool! Do you know if something like that exists for flowers? Whenever I see a flower, I’m always all like, “I wonder what kind of pretty flower that is”, but I never find out.

  27. zwarte

    “There has to be bird audio available in other forms, because about 4 years ago I did a bird census here at the ranchette with this bird guy from the uni, and he had all the bird calls on his iPod. ”

    We use Birdjam. [check http://www.birdjam.com ]
    The search features for the ibird, though, sound interesting!

  28. thebewilderness

    Try this, comrad:


  29. thebewilderness

    My apologies for the typo, Comrade!

  30. slade

    I have fed brown birds as well as red and tan birds this winter and spring. And of course the squirrels. And now I no longer want to deal with humans.

    A big neutered male cat came along today and sat waiting for the birds. We had a chat and he moved along.

    Animals are so much more reasonable than humans…especially the male humans.

    I do like the humans at Trader Joe’s where I discovered a new soy and rice flour baked chip flavored with white cheddar cheese. My cat deemed these ‘baked soy-cheezies’ better than the Trader Joe’s ‘baked potato poppies.’ This is really SOMETHING.

    Twisty, I love your brown birds. More pictures, please.

  31. rootlesscosmo

    Five or six years ago, in the village next to the one I live in, a set of captive Venezuelan parrots were either set free or escaped their cage.

    A guy in San Francisco noticed several years ago that a population of parrots, escaped from or abandoned by human captors, had established itself on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. He started feeding them and their numbers grew–there are now groups of five or six that roam the northeast corner of the city, swooping into back yards, perching on telephone poles along the waterfront, apparently now part of our urban ecosystem along with pigeons and SBBs and seagulls and pelicans and ravens and coots and occasionally peregrine falcons. The resilience of the non-human world, its stubborn refusal to creep away and die under the destructive impact of human activity, is very encouraging.

    (There’s a documentary, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill;” haven’t seen it yet.)

  32. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    I have a couple pair of the BIRDY BIRDY BIRDY bird bird bird cardinals setting up housekeeping in my apple tree. They do this every year right about now. They like it because I don’t chemicalize the tree, and the critters are more than welcome to its fruit. Same goes for the pear tree. And the concord grape vines.

    I’ve also got flocks of purple finches. A person could be forgiven for mistaking these for sparrows because they only have their red heads during nesting season. Their song is so lovely, it’s hard to believe it comes from a little bit of feathers and hollow bones. The goldfinches don’t nest until later.

    And lots of red-wing blackbirds, who terrorize my dogs.

    “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is somewhere in my netflix queue, but it will probably make me homesick for the bay area.

  33. speedbudget

    Thanks for the tips, guys. I’ve bookmarked the web pages, and I will look into buying birdJam for my iPod (which I just accidentally erased. I’m still coming to grips with that).

    I have heard the black-capped chickadees, the Carolina wren, eastern phoebe, barn swallow, wood thrush, robin, catbird, cardinal, goldfinch, and both orioles in my field. It’s nice to know who is talking about what out there now.

    Yesterday, while walking my bite-size dog, we came across two eagles having a tussle in the field. I think they were play fighting. But those birds are huge, my friends. You hear about their wing span, but until you scare up a couple of them playing around, you don’t realize how big they actually are. Of course, my dog went running after them, barking. I thought sure I would never see her again.

  34. Lily Underwood

    Bird nerds unite!

  35. undercover punk

    You can call me a dude too; it won’t be the first or the last time that such insults have been leveled at me for asking questions others find unpleasant.

    Converting straight girls?!!? Please elaborate. My inquiring lesbian mind wants to know! I assure you, this interest is not motivated by some pornulated sexual fantasy of the patriarchy. It’s the advancement of my beloved Separatism, you know. Twisty, CAN THEY BE CONVERTED?? Why or why not? Please explain.

  36. K

    The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is available on dvd at over a thousand libraries in the United States. It’s also owned by libraries in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Just wanted to let everybody know.

  37. Twisty


    I don’t think so.

  38. Ron Sullivan

    Geez, I thought everybody was bi. Or maybe a convertible.

    Wild Parrots… is great fun. See the movie and then read the book. Rilly, in that order. Judy Irving has made a bunch of nature doccos and I really like her eye.

    Speedbudget: which two orioles? Out here we get Bullock’s (can’t remember if that’s a species or a subspecies this week, but it’s sure as hell field-separable from Baltimore) and occasionally hooded. Baltimore oriole has one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard live.

    Larkspur, I’ve been meditating on your question. (FWIW I’ve been alternating between the earworm I dropped here and another that’s even worse and I’ll spare you the name. I think it’s the multitude of drugs I’m ingesting lately. Serves me right, I agree.) I asked Joe, which I do a lot anyway*, and he suggested the brainfever bird (of India, I think) or the screaming piha. I was thinking more along the lines of woodpecker but maybe that’s personal. Or the go-away bird. I can’t remember whether that’s from Africa or South America but I’ve always wanted one on my answering machine.

    *Also vice-versa, yes.

  39. Betsy

    I like the fish crow, because they say “Anh-unh. Anh-unh” over and over, in the most convincingly negative tone.

  40. pheenobarbidoll

    I like grackles, but my stupid city has decided to poison them because they shit on new cars at the mall.

    Pissed me right the hell off.

  41. undercover punk

    Ok, thanks, Twisty. I’ll take it! I shall assume that we disagree on the mutability of sexuality, but I still enjoy your sarcasm. Thanks again! ;)

  42. Twisty

    I like grackles, but my stupid city has decided to poison them because they shit on new cars at the mall.

    A few years ago in Austin there was a mysterious mass grackle poisoning on the main downtown street that leads to the state capitol building. They shut downtown down and locked down the Governor’s Mansion, in case it was terrorists trying to kill the governor! But of course it was just some asshole shop owner who doesn’t like grackle shit.

  43. pheenobarbidoll

    The city poisoned them one week after a huge raid on cock fighting rings. In one week they went from killing birds is Bad to well, killing SOME birds is hunky dorey, especially when they shit all over an “important” d00ds car lot. The excuse for having hundreds of dead, poison infested birds all over the place? The live birds were a health hazard.


  44. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    There was a similar problem at one of Disney’s parks in Florida, where seabirds were wreaking havoc by dropping clams on cars. I don’t remember how the issue was solved, but situations like this usually end badly for the seabirds. More’s the pity.

  45. speedbudget

    Ron: We get Baltimore and orchard orioles.

    Have these people never heard of fake owls or Border collies? Many places around here employ Border collies to shoo away the canada geese that take up residence next to their stupid human-made ponds and fountains.

    Where do people get off committing mass genocide cause they don’t like poo? It washes right the fuck off. I wish that were true of the patriarchy.

  46. rubysecret

    Nice photos of the aforementioned San Franciscan Parrots


  47. Ron Sullivan

    Thanks, speedbudget.

    The city (or anybody) that poisons grackles is in violation of Federal law and then some: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Somebody might feel litigious.

  48. Rugosa

    Around these parts, we have the Little Gray Birds – chickadees, juncos, tufted titmice (also known as tifted tutmoose).

  49. Occasional Expositor

    Catching up after a holiday, hence the paleo-commenting.

    The common loon has North America’s best bird calls, I reckon. I’ve noticed a trend in movies to use loon calls as “generic wilderness sounds” set at any random location in the world, but really they are pretty much only found in the very northern US and Canada/Alaska.

    Listen to the sounds at Environment Canada.

    Plus they take let their chicks ride on their backs and have a “penguin dance”.

  50. Twisty

    Mang, thanks a bundle for the loon link. I agree with your assessment.

  51. rootlesscosmo

    Loon and many other wildlife sounds available for free download as cell phone ringtones at:


  52. Comrade PhysioProf

    Loon and many other wildlife sounds available for free download as cell phone ringtones at

    One of my trainees has Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple as her ring tone. Maybe I should hack her phone and replace it with the call of the loon.

  53. rootlesscosmo

    A person could do worse. Some of those wildlife calls are really intrusive, others too subtle for my imperfect hearing, but the loon gets your attention and can take repeated playings without becoming a nuisance.

  54. Alex

    The phoebe has an awesome hairdo; it looks a little like mine.

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