Archive for the 'Vocalizations' Category

Feb 27 2017

The Falcon’s Laugh

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

On my trip to Costa Rica I wanted to see a laughing falcon. And then I wanted to hear it.

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) are very vocal birds that live in Central and South America from Mexico to northern Argentina.  They specialize in eating snakes — even poisonous ones — which they kill by biting off the heads.  Ch’ol Maya legend says the birds can cure themselves of snake bites. And yet, the birds sound spooky.

At dusk laughing falcons raise their voices in advertisement calls or duets.  They start with a gwa call, getting louder and louder, that usually morphs into two syllables: gwa co.

One evening before dinner at Las Cruces Biological Station, Bert Dudley filmed this laughing falcon warming up at dusk.  (If the video doesn’t play, click here.)

Laughing Falcon Feb 1, 2017

The two-syllable call gave the bird its common name, halcón guaco, but those calls don’t sound like laughing.

Here is his laugh:

The falcon only “laughs” when he’s worried or upset.


(photo and video by Bert Dudley)

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Feb 24 2017

Who’s Singing Now?

Published by under Vocalizations

The birds are singing again and our ears are “rusty” after six months of their silence. How can we identify them?

Here are videos for four species singing in my Pittsburgh neighborhood this morning.  Perhaps they’re in your neighborhood, too.

  • Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) get back in tune very early in the year.  They’re resident throughout much of North America so they begin practicing in January.  By now they’re doing the territorial call-and-response in Pittsburgh.  In the video above, you can hear a song sparrow off camera before the one in view responds.
  • Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are LOUD.  Resident in the eastern U.S., their song is described as “TEAkettle, TEAkettle, TEAkettle” but it doesn’t always sound like that.  Often the best clue to identifying this wren is that it’s the loudest voice you hear.  Watch him sing below, then look for your local wren on a prominent perch.  You’ll be surprised by how far away he is.


  • House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were originally from the western U.S. and Mexico but bird sellers illegally captured and sold them as “Hollywood Finches” in New York City.  In 1940, with law enforcement in pursuit, the dealers released their birds in Central Park.  Since then, the eastern population has expanded westward, nearly meeting up with their western relatives. You probably have one singing in your neighborhood.  Listen to him below.


  • The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) “whoooing” song is sometimes mistaken for an owl but when you look for the source you’ll find this bird puffing his throat. Mourning doves are tuning up near you.  They’re resident in most of the U.S. and Mexico.


(videos from YouTube. Click on the “Watch on YouTube” icon to see each video with explanatory text)

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Jan 29 2017

Monkeys And Macaws

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’ll be birding at Carara National Park on the Pacific Coast where I expect to see monkeys and the park’s most famous bird, the scarlet macaw.

Encountering monkeys in the wild is a new experience for me.  Because we humans are the only primates who live outside subtropical zones most of us only see primates in captivity.

At Carara we’re likely to see white-headed capuchins (Cebus capucinus), shown above. These diurnal monkeys are highly intelligent and very social, living in troops of about 16 individuals that are mostly female kin because the males move around.  White-headed capuchins love to use tools and are so smart that they can be trained in captivity to assist paraplegics.

If we hear an otherworldly roar like a dinosaur, it’ll be a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata).  The howlers roar both day and night but can be hard to find.

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to hear the howl while a woman searches for the source. Perhaps they “sound like dinosaurs” because the foley editors used howler voices in Jurassic Park.


Today’s highlight, though, will be the beautiful wild scarlet macaws (Ara macao).

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These huge members of the parrot family have a wide range — from Central to South America — but they need a lot of territory that’s remote from humans in order to survive.  Carara provides that space.

I hope to see scarlet macaws flying, as in the photo below.  I’ve seen green-winged macaws (Ara chloropterus) in free flight at the National Aviary but seeing scarlets — and in the wild — will be a real treat.

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


And for those of you who love reptiles, there’s a bonus.  Carara National Park has American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).  No, they are not alligators. Click here to see.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 3: Carara National Park

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Sep 16 2016

Cheeps Like A Bird

Published by under Mammals,Vocalizations

The birds aren’t singing and many aren’t even making contact calls but you’ll still hear something in the forest that sounds like a bird.

Listen to the video above as a chipmunk makes chirpy calls that resemble a northern cardinal — except that they’re too fast and “sweet.”

Chipmunks make sounds we don’t expect from such a small body.  Lang Elliott recorded three of them:  “chip”, “tock” and squeak.  Click here to hear.

Want to know what they mean? Jim McCormac explains them in Deciphering the language of chipmunks.

You’ll get a lot of practice with these sounds in the weeks ahead.  The chipmunks are in overdrive and very vocal, storing up food for the winter.


(video by PAphotofun on YouTube. Chipmunk audio by Lang Elliott via Wildlife of Connecticut website)

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Sep 08 2016

The Sound of a Human Voice

Juvenile common raven (photo by M.I.K.E. via Shutterstock)

Juvenile common raven (photo from Shutterstock)

On Throw Back Thursday:

I heard the sound of a human voice calling “Ho!”  It was actually …

A Human Voice


(photo from Shutterstock)

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Aug 22 2016

Babies, It’s Hot Outside

Screenshot from Science video about zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)

Screenshot from Science Magazine video on zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)

Bird news from last week, in case you missed it …

Many birds talk to their eggs and there’s evidence that the eggs hear and respond.  For instance, superb fairywrens sing to their eggs and before they hatch the babies sing back!

Now scientists at Deakin University in Australia have discovered that in zebra finches what the eggs hear and how they respond is even more amazing than we knew.

In the last days of incubation, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) sing a special song to their eggs but only when it’s hot outside — greater than 26 degrees C (78.8 degrees F).

The eggs hear the song and it changes their lives.

After they hatch, babies who heard the “hot call” grow more slowly than those who didn’t.  Not only are the “hot call” babies smaller as adults but they’re more successful breeders in a hot climate.  Surprisingly, this effect extends into later generations.

Small bodies cope better with heat than large ones, so signalling for a smaller size is a great adaptation for a warming climate.

But how does the zebra finch song bring about this result?

Click here to watch the video and read about this amazing feat.


(screenshot from Science Magazine video about zebra finch vocalization. Click on the screenshot to see the video)

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Aug 19 2016

Follow The Sound And You Might Find …

This broad-winged hawk was hidden until the songbirds gave him away.

If you hear birds making a ruckus in late August and September, look for what’s upsetting them.  It might be a broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) stopping by on migration.


p.s. Broad-winged hawks are forest dwellers, the same bulky shape as red-tailed hawks but smaller and not often seen near people.

(video by caroltlw on YouTube)

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Jul 11 2016

A Bird With A Bad Pick-up Line

This 3-note song mystified me in my own backyard.  I can usually identify birds by ear but this one stumped me for at least six weeks.

Finally, I recorded it outside my window and sent it to my friend Dr. Tony Bledsoe.  Tony suggested a tufted titmouse. (Turn up your speakers to hear the song in the video above. Ignore the picture, the bird’s not in it.)

A few days later I saw the bird.  No wonder we didn’t recognize the song!  He’s a gray catbird that sounds nothing like his cohorts.  (Turn your speakers back down for the audio below.)


Most birds are silent in early July but the odd-sounding gray catbird is still singing in my neighborhood and I can guess why.

None of the lady catbirds like his song so he’s still calling for a mate.

He’s a bird with a bad pick-up line.


(video by Kate St. John)

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Jun 15 2016

Danger From The Sky

Published by under Vocalizations

American robin, skygazing (photo by Joel Kluger on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

American robin, skygazing (photo by Joel Kluger on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Songbirds are well aware that birds of prey will eat them so they warn each other when they see one. Their warning calls can alert us, too, that a predator is circling overhead.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) stand very still, turn one eye to the sky(*) and make a very thin, high-pitched sound similar to a cedar waxwing’s call.  Seet.  On the sonogram below it’s shaped like an eyebrow. Here’s what it sounds like:


European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) make a spitting sound that’s much easier to hear.

European starling (photo by Chuck Tague)

European starling (photo by Chuck Tague)

They sound off from a safe perch or call “Danger! Danger!” as they take off to avoid the predator.   In my experience, they only use this sound when they see danger in the sky.  Here’s what it sounds like:

When you hear these calls, look up to find the hawk.  At Schenley Plaza it may be a peregrine falcon.


(*) American robins turn one eye to the sky because they don’t see straight ahead as well as they do side to side.  For more information see Anatomy: Field of View.

(photo of American robin by Joel Kluger on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original. photo of European starling by Chuck Tague)

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Apr 26 2016

Did You Know That I Sing?

Female northern cardinal (photo by Steve Gosser)

Female northern cardinal (photo by Steve Gosser)

Now every morning we awake to birdsong.  All the singers are male, right?  Well … not really.

When I took a class on birdsong years ago I learned that female birds don’t sing. This information came from centuries of bird observations made in Europe and North America. Charles Darwin even used it to describe how song evolved in male birds to attract mates and compete for territory.

But in 2014 that “fact” was turned upside down.  71% of female songbirds do sing.  It’s just that most of them are tropical species.  No one had studied birdsong worldwide until a team lead by Karan Odom of University of Maryland, Baltimore County published their findings in Nature Communications in March 2014.

It’s true that almost all the singing birds in North America are male, but there are some exceptions.

Did you know that female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) sing and they’re just as good at it as the males?

I was reminded of this last week when a female flew into a tree just over my head and sang a long sustained vibrato even faster than this:

Cardinal couples countersing to synchronize their pair bond.  Yesterday in Schenley Park I saw a female sing a phrase several times, then her mate matched it.

So when you hear a cardinal singing, take the time to find the singer.  It may be a lady!


p.s. Female rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) and black-headed grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus) sing, too.  They’re in the Cardinal Family.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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