Archive for the 'Vocalizations' Category

Dec 11 2014

TBT: Ubiquitous Human Noise

Aldo Leopold at his Salk County shack, around 1940 (photo from Univ of Wisconsin Digital Archives)

Aldo Leopold at his Salk County shack, around 1940 (photo courtesy UW Digital Archives)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) to October 2012:

Imagine listening to birds without the sounds of human activity in the background.

In 2012 ecologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison recreated a soundscape from Aldo Leopold’s time without today’s background noise of vehicles, airplanes, boats, trains and tools.

Click here to read more and hear what it’s like to escape our ubiquitous human noise.


(photo of Aldo Leopold, courtesy UW Digital Archives)


One response so far

Oct 09 2014

TBT: Remembering Their Dialects

Published by under Vocalizations

Swamp Sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

October is sparrow time in Pennsylvania. Migrating warblers have left.  Migrating sparrows have arrived.

Though swamp sparrows aren’t singing right now, the species is famous for their regional dialects.  Over the winter they’ll be exposed to other sparrows with other dialects.  Will they change their accents to match their winter friends or retain their dialects to use next spring?

How do swamp sparrows remember their songs?  The answer is in this 2008 blog post:  It’s Done With Mirrors


(photo of a swamp sparrow by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 19 2014

Beer Bee!

Published by under Vocalizations

Male American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

I know American goldfinches are nesting when I hear the call “beer Bee!”

Loud or soft, the accent is on the second syllable.  Birds of North America Online spells it “bay bee”.  I hear “beer BEE.”

The call is a warning. Goldfinches use it near the nest when there’s a dangerous predator nearby.  Last Saturday I heard it repeated loudly for an hour while an immature Coopers hawk perched in my neighbor’s spruce tree.  As soon as the hawk left the goldfinches stopped saying it.

Listen for the call and you’ll learn two things:

  1. There’s a goldfinch nest nearby and …
  2. There’s also a hawk, cat or other danger in the vicinity.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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May 08 2014

Which One Should I Choose?

Trio of brown-headed cowbirds (photo by Dori from Wikimedia Commons)

Brown-headed cowbirds are courting now because their victims are about to nest.  The males sing a bubbly whistling song to attract a favored female.  After she’s chosen a mate, Mrs. Cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds whose own eggs and nestlings die while the foster cowbird chick thrives.

In cowbird society nest building and incubation never occur so the pair bond is cemented by courtship songs and postures.  Amazingly, the quality of the male’s song really matters.  That’s how the female decides who to accept and who to ignore.

What happens if a female can’t tell the difference between good and bad songs?  What happens when one lady in the flock doesn’t follow the rules?  Last year scientists learned that one tone-deaf female can upset cowbird society.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania led by Sarah Maguire inactivated the song-control centers of some female cowbirds’ brains so they could no longer distinguish between high and low quality songs.  When placed in a mixed-sex flock these ladies reacted to all songs and did not stay with a chosen male for long.

Since male dominance among cowbirds is based on song quality the best guys usually get the best gals.  However, when a tone-deaf female appeared in the flock she listened to all males equally and the minor males got a boost.  The dominant males courted the altered female more vigorously.  The other ladies were left in the cold.

Which guy will she choose?  One tone-deaf female can mess up an entire social structure.

Read more here in PLOS One.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.   Click on the image to see the original)


5 responses so far

Apr 02 2014

The Sound Of A Lonesome Dove

Published by under Quiz,Vocalizations

This morning I heard the sound of a lonesome dove.

When seeking a mate male mourning doves call like the ones in this video.  Those who’ve found true love don’t need to sing because the cooing is a solicitation call, not a territorial defense.

Unmated males perch-coo from the heights as loudly as they can, “Ladies, I’m available.”  It’s amazingly loud considering they don’t even open their mouths.  A few have already begun calling in my neighborhood but the peak time will be late April through June.

Males also use flap-glide flight to attract female attention.  Taking off with exaggerated wing-claps, they fly up above the trees and rooftops, then spiral down with stiff wings held slightly below their bodies.  From a distance their silhouettes resemble kestrels or sharp-shinned hawks.  They’ve fooled me more than once. Here’s my attempt at what they look like, gliding from left to right:

Mourning dove flag-glide flight (drawing by Kate St. John)
Today sunrise is at 6:49am so a lot of us are awake before the perch-cooing begins, but lonesome doves can be annoying in June when they start calling at 5:00am.


Quiz!  Test your “birding by ear” skills with this video.  In addition to the mourning dove there are at least seven other species singing in the background.  Who are they?


(video by Carl Gerhardt, via YouTube. Silhouette drawing by Kate St. John)

8 responses so far

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

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