Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

It's For You! The Telephone Bird
July 9, 2002

One of the sounds I'm asked about most frequently at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park is what visitors call "that telephone bird."

It's the call of the varied thrush, a fairly abundant bird in the Sitka Spruce forest. The varied thrush is about the size and shape of a robin; in fact it's a fairly close relative. The color differs considerably, though, with the male having an orange face and breast and sporting a handsome black eyestripe and necklace. The female has about the same color pattern, but the intensity is subdued.

One bird identification book at the Park describes the call as "penetrating,...a long, somewhat burry, whistled note." None of our bird books pick up on the obvious resemblance to the ringing of an old dial telephone. Sometimes the call just approximates the sound, but a few of the more talented males out here really nail it, giving out an impressively bell-like tone. (Maybe the lack of telephone references in those bird books isn't all that bad, considering that the old telephone sound is no longer encountered very frequently. It may make as much sense to a 10-year-old as "You sound like a broken record," or "You're a carbon copy of your brother!")

Whatever the call sounds like to us, it successfully at pierces the dense foliage of the spruce groves, where the thrush males need to rely on auditory rather than visual communication with each other and with females. Even as brightly colored as they are, they're difficult to spot among the trees. Every once in a great while one does me the favor of flying down to the pathway where I can see it.

What we hear as a ringing telephone turns out to be a serious message broadcast to both males and females that a male is available who is able to hold onto good territory for nesting. There's not much time in the season for the message to be successfully transmitted and received. Kodiak summers are so short that nesting needs to begin quickly, and the telephone rings will become less frequent as pairs form, nests are built in low bushes, three or four eggs are laid, and offspring are reared.

The varied thrushes leave us in the Fall, migrating southward into western Canada and as far south as Southern California. They'll return next Spring, though, as will so many of Kodiak's very mobile animals, whether birds or whales. Their migration takes time, and is costly in terms of both energy expenditure and physical hazard. What makes it biologically worthwhile for the birds is Kodiak's distinctive seasonal change. That huge Spring flush of suddenly available food in the form of berries and insects offers plenty to feed the gluttonous hatchlings.

As with the accelerated blooming sequence of our wildflowers that gives us such spectacular visual scenery, the short Kodiak summers have some responsibility for the auditory landscape at this time of year. Besides the varied thrush telephone rings, the Fort Abercrombie spruce groves are sounding with calls of hermit thrushes, golden crowned sparrows, Wilson's warblers, and fox sparrows, all vying with other members of their species for a head start in nesting. While it may sound glorious, there is a subtle theme of desperation in the background.

Much of Kodiak's biological community shows impressive adaptations to our extreme seasonality. In that, it shares a philosophy in common with an Islander I talked with who moved here permanently a few years ago: "It's a beautiful place. I knew right away if I could make it through the winters here, I sure wouldn't starve in the summers." Updated 2002 July 20