The last Spring Migrants & Hearing outside birds inside

BIRD COLUMN FOR May 16, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

Topic: The last migrants of the Spring
and How to listen to birds outside when the windows are closed, a review of a device that really does this very well

(Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

THE INDIGO BUNTING is a small finch that should arrive from the tropics this week. The male is blue all over with a heavy, finch type bill. The female is a rather plain brown bird. This painting is from the "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America", fifth edition.

The Height of the Spring Migration
This week there will be more species of birds in Central New York than at any other time of the year. These include the last of the new arrivals, the indigo bunting, the nighthawk, the trail's flycatcher and the pewee. Many species that first appeared in April will continue to stream through towards their breeding grounds further north.

Hearing the birds outside
When the windows are closed, it is fun to hear the outdoor bird sounds over a loud speaker inside.

I first enjoyed this experience when I visited the original Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology building in Ithaca, NY many years ago. There was a large observation room with lots of windows that looked out upon the pond as well as a nearby group of feeders. Visitors would sit in comfortable chairs and watch the birds outside. Not only could you see birds, but you could hear them as well. It was a most enjoyable experience.

The scientists there had designed and installed their own sound system with microphones outside and loud speakers inside.

Today, they have a new building with a similar view and those treasured sounds can still be heard inside.

The early equipment for home use
Over the years since The Laboratory of Ornithology first installed their system, several companies brought to market a device for home use. Outside was a microphone with a small radio transmitter. The radio broadcast was picked up by the antenna on a special radio receiver in the house.

Unfortunately, the antenna also picked up commercial radio stations as well as clicks, humming sounds and buzzy noises produced by all sorts of electrical devices.

The noise was annoying and made it hard to hear the birds, so these devices never really caught on.

What is available today?

There are two models on the market. The first one is "Natures Window". It is excellent. Like the system at Cornell, a wire connects the microphone to the equipment indoors. There is no antenna or radio involved that can pick up stray sound.

I have used one for the past six months. A small box containing an amplifier and loud speaker is placed in the house where it is plugged into an electrical outlet. A wire connects it to a water-proof microphone that is outdoors near the feeder. The outdoor sounds can be heard clearly without any interference.

On May 3 at 7:00 AM, I heard my first wood thrush this spring when its song came through my loudspeaker. It was right on schedule! A moment later a robin sang and was interrupted by the calls of two Canada geese flying over. Sounds of crows could be heard in the distance. Although the windows were closed, the room was filled with song.

My microphone hangs just above the big platform feeder so small sounds by birds feeding there are easily heard. On another day, a female red-winged blackbird was picking up cracked corn there when she was disturbed by a blue jay arriving to feed and she had to step aside. She made a horrible squawk which was heard clearly.

A cardinal also uttered a harsh note of protest when it had to give way to the jay.

Even with the windows open, there are faint sounds that the unaided ear can not hear. Last summer a blue jay family was at the feeder. Over the speaker we heard these birds communicating with each other using some soft "murmering" sounds

One day a strange croaking sound on the speaker brought me to the window in time to see a great blue heron moving by at low altitude with slowly beating wings.

After dark, we have heard bull frogs, green frogs, spring peepers, crickets and owls. The microphone has certainly increased our enjoyment of the birds and other creatures near our home.

There is an on-off switch and a volume control on the box.

“Mother Nature’s Monitor” is the other model that is available today in stores. It is a wireless model. It is one of the older types. It has been available for perhaps 10 years. It has a weatherproof, plastic container that holds a microphone and a small FM radio transmitter that can be hung from a tree branch or a feeder. There is no wire connecting the microphone to the box. This device costs $40.00.

How do these two models compare?

The wireless model, "Mother Nature's Monitor", permits the microphone to be placed anywhere in the yard within a distance of 75 feet from the little box in the house. The sound is clear and distinct if there are no other electrical devices nearby.

This wireless model requires 4 C batteries in the microphone outside and 4 AA batteries in the box indoors. To save the batteries, it can be set to turn off automatically when it gets dark and to turn on when the light returns. It is imported from China and has a one year warranty.

This wireless model works best in country locations where there are no nearby TV towers, cell phone towers or power lines that can produce static or a roar.

A number of people near Auburn, NY have this model and find it satisfactory. This is a small town west of Syracuse. However, in locations close to Syracuse such as at my home it can not be used. There is a loud roar that almost drowns out the bird songs.

You should try it on each of the two channels and if at least one channel gives good reception, you can keep the unit. If you can't get good reception on either channel, the store mentioned below will take it back for a full refund.

The new wired model, "Nature's Window" is the first commercial unit to have a wire connecting the microphone to the amplifier and loud speaker in the house. It is more sensitive than the wireless type. Even for a distant bird it gives a clear and distinct sound with no static or hum.

It must be pointed out that such a sensitive microphone will pick up all the sounds outdoors. A chickadee once alighted on the microphone and began pecking it. What a noise that made!

When it is raining or the wind is blowing, you may wish to turn down the volume or shut it off. If there is a busy highway nearby, you will hear that too. An airplane going over or your neighbors lawnmower can be irritating.

One family near Auburn, NY had their unit on at night and overheard two prowlers who were near the microphone whispering outside about burglarizing the house. Police were called and the criminals were caught before they had done any harm.

Now, back to "Natures Window" where the microphone is connected by a wire. The wire with the microphone on the end is passed through an open window that is then closed gently over the wire.

The distance between the box indoors and the microphone is limited by the length of this wire which is about 6 feet. Thus the microphone picks up the sounds from a point just outside the house and brings them in clearly.

If you would like to have a longer wire for the microphone, for example, so that you can place the microphone close to a feeder, ask the store to order one with a "custom probe" that has a wire of the length you specify. It will be sent to the store in two days. The charge for the rewiring will be $1.50 for each extra foot.

I ordered mine with a 20 foot wire so the microphone could hang just above the feeder. I wanted the microphone to be able to pickup the faint sounds that birds make as they feed. It does a fine job of getting all the other natural sounds as well. There are no batteries needed since the box plugs into a nearby electrical outlet in the house.

It is manufactured by Lumatron, a small family business in Tennessee. It is hand made and has a lifetime warranty.

It was carefully designed by Theo Chamberlin. About 1970, when he first thought about making one, the electronic components needed to get the high quality he wanted were not available at affordable prices.

Eventually he was able to get the parts he needed and in 1999 his device finally appeared in stores where it costs $80.00.

It is an excellent product and does bring in the sounds clearly and it does just what it is supposed to do. It has a lifetime warranty. Chamberlin told me that so far over a thousand have been sold and not one has been returned.

Any store or individual can order the “Nature’s Window” and information about it as well as how to order is given on their web site: Click on the next line

"Nature's Window", the wired model, is available at the Wild Birds Unlimited store, 402 East Genesee St., Fayetteville, NY 13066, phone 315-637 0710.

It is also carried by other Wild Birds Unlimited stores around the United States. If the one nearest you does not have it, they can order it for you.

The wireless model, “Mother Nature’s Monitor” is available in Central New York at the Bird House store, 2148 State Route 326, Auburn NY 13021, Phone 315-252-1850.