Archive for the 'Vocalizations' Category

Feb 09 2014

I Can Sound Pretty

Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

As the days get longer the birds have started to sing again.  Jessica Manack reminded me that one of those songs is quite a surprise.

The blue jay’s typical call is unmistakeable and brash. We usually see him do it because he draws attention to himself when he says “Jay.”

He can also make a wide variety of other sounds, some of which are really odd: Try this link at the Macaulay Library.

But during the courtship season he says KWEE-de-lee, a sound so melodic you think it couldn’t be made by a jay.

When you hear this call, look for the bird and you’ll find him doing rapid deep knee bends, raising and lowering his entire body as he calls.

“I can sound pretty,” says the blue jay.  “I just don’t want you to notice.”

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

5 responses so far

Dec 16 2013

Everybody Loves Beethoven

Beakie the starling talks on the phone (screenshot from YouTube video)

Today is Beethoven’s 243rd birthday and we’re celebrating on Classical WQED-FM with (nearly) All Beethoven, All Day.

Beethoven’s music is so popular that birds learn to sing it.  Click on the photo above to watch a pet starling whistle his favorite Beethoven symphony over the phone.

Can you identify the symphony?

(screenshot from YouTube video)

5 responses so far

Nov 21 2013

Driving The Sparrows Wild

Published by under Vocalizations

Song Sparrow (photo by Bobby Greene)

I love classical music and often whistle the tunes, especially when I’m happy.  Last Saturday afternoon was one of those days.

The weather was warm and overcast as I walked up Nine Mile Run from Duck Hollow to Frick Park.  I was hoping to find a fox sparrow — no luck — but was pleased to see a beautiful male American kestrel and a flock of 40 robins.  I found only three song sparrows on my way north.

When I reached the hillside grassland on my way back I remembered the Adagio from Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and started whistling the piano solo.

Suddenly song sparrows came out of the underbrush.  They flew through the weeds making little “bep” calls.  I stopped walking and continued whistling.  The sparrows kept coming, flying into the weed tufts.  “Bep bep bep.”

I was making good progress through the piano solo though a little squeaky on the high notes because the piano has a wide range and I do not.   Pretty soon seven song sparrows were perched on a sapling in front of me, five more on the weeds nearby and several more flying in to join them.  This was in an area where I’d seen no sparrows on my way north.

At their peak I counted 15.  The sparrows insisted on perching in front of me. All of them made warning calls. They seemed to be saying “Shut up!”

Perhaps they’d heard this good performance of the second movement and knew I was murdering the solo that begins at 0:40 in the video at this link.

I thought I did pretty well with a complex piece but I drove the sparrows wild!


(photo of a song sparrow by Bobby Greene.
music by Derek Han, Piano, Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser.  Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 40, Felix Mendelssohn

5 responses so far

Jul 01 2013


Published by under Vocalizations


Onomatopoeia is a six-syllable word that’s hard to read but easy to say:  On ah ma ta PEE ah      (Click here to hear it pronounced in U.S. English)

It comes from two Greek words: “name” (?????) and “I make” (?????) and means, literally, “I make my name.”

The meaning is obvious when you consider some birds with onomatopoetic names:  bobwhite, chickadee and hoopoe.

Since we don’t have hoopoes in North America you might not know what they sound like.  Play the video to hear how the hoopoe got his name.

Can you think of other onomatopoetic bird names?


(video from YouTube)

7 responses so far

Apr 04 2013

This Is A Test

Published by under Quiz,Vocalizations

This is a test.  For the next two minutes this video will test your ability to identify birds by sound.  This is only a test.

Well, actually it’s a video of mockingbirds singing. Whose songs and calls are they imitating?

Use this quiz to get your ears in shape for birding by ear this spring.  At minimum you’ll remember the mockingbirds’ three-repeat song.

This is only a test.  If there had been an actual blue jay in the video you would have seen him.

(video by grcapro on YouTube)

5 responses so far

Mar 21 2013

Tundra Swan Quartet

Tundra Swan Jazz Quartet

This year snow geese and tundra swans peaked in eastern Pennsylvania in mid to late February.

I missed their migration but Meredith Lombard visited Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and captured this video of tundra swan interactions.

These four swans are really hooting it up.  The quartet began when two pairs encouraged their mates with lean-forward and wing-quiver calls.   But the quivering wing display is also used in antagonistic encounters.  When the males got too close the dominant male had had enough.  He rushed the other one.

Whoa!  The less aggressive male immediately sat on the water in a submissive posture and the situation defused.  Watch him curl his neck down in an S position and look away.

Tundra swans can make music together.  Sometimes they jazz it up.

(video by Meredith Lombard on Flickr)

One response so far

Feb 20 2013

Morning Song

Mourning Dove in Urbana, IL (photo by Dori on Wikimedia Commons)

On February mornings, the mourning doves sing songs of love.

The males perch high and puff their throats when they sing.  Though they are slender, they resemble pigeons when they do this.

Coo-OOOO Cooo Cooo Cooo.

Some say they sound like owls but those who think the sound is mournful named this dove.

Click here to hear their mourning morning song.


AND A QUIZ!    Identify the other bird singing in the recording.  His song is not normally heard in southwestern PA in the summer.  The mourning dove lives year-round from Maine to Mexico, from Canada to Cuba.  The other bird will give you a hint on the location of the recording.


(photo by Dori on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

6 responses so far

Feb 12 2013

Sounds Like A Typewriter

White-winged Crossbill, male (photo by Heather Jacoby)

White-winged Crossbill (photo by Heather Jacoby)

This winter in addition to irruptions of evening grosbeaks and redpolls, crossbills have come to Pennsylvania.

I’ve seen white-winged crossbills before, especially in the winter of 2009, but this year they’ve eluded me.  People send news of them to PABIRDS but when I travel to their reported location they aren’t there.  True to their irruptive nature crossbills are always on the move.  Dang!

Last week I ran into Claire Staples while on my lunch break in Oakland.  We exchanged bird sightings and Claire said she’d experienced the same problem finding crossbills until quite recently when she heard them near her home in Squirrel Hill.

The clue is their sound.  Claire says they sound like typewriters, a useful tip as I actually do remember what typewriters sound like.  Shows how old I am!

So now on my walks I’m trying hard not to look for crossbills as I don’t want to jinx my chances of seeing them.  But I’m listening for the sound of typewriters.

(Click here to hear.)

(photo by Heather Jacoby)

9 responses so far

Dec 19 2012

Named For…

Guess why this South American bird is called a Bearded Bellbird.


(video from YouTube)

p.s. that beard is not made of feathers.  It’s long stringy skin.  😮

No responses yet

Dec 07 2012

Hiding By Voice

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a bird when it’s making an alarm call?  And how easy it is to find when singing?

It’s not just that birds hide when alarmed and sing out in the open.  They change their tune to conceal or reveal.  They know that the “physical structure of a sound affects the ease with which a listener — predator or neighbor — can locate its source.” (*)

Northern cardinals are a great example of this principle.

When they’re hiding in a thicket, their call is a thin, faint, high note.  The alarm call’s narrow frequency range makes it really hard to pinpoint.  Click here for an example.

By contrast, when they’re announcing their presence or guarding their territory the sound is rich and variable in a wide frequency range.  This gives it a lot more “hooks” for our ears to grab onto.  Here’s an example of their song and contact calls.

So when birds are warning each other of danger, there’s a reason why you can’t find their location.  They’re hiding by voice.

(photo by Cris Hamilton. Inspiration for this Tenth Page is from page 220(*) of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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