Category Archives: Vocalizations

Who says birds can’t change their tune?

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Songbirds are born with the ability to sing but perfect their songs by listening to others. Many learn when immature, usually from their fathers, and then don’t change their tunes. That’s why it was a surprise when Ken Otter and Scott Ramsay discovered that a new song from western Canada is so popular among white-throated sparrows that it’s taking over the country.

White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) learn their songs at 30 to 100 days old and don’t vary them later except for a window in the birds’ second winter when they’re open to new ideas.

Twenty years ago all the birds sang the tune we still hear in the East, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” The end of the song is a triplet of three syllables.

In the early 2000s Otter and Ramsay recorded a new song unique to Prince George, a remote city in northern British Columbia. The birds sang “Oh sweet cana, cana, cana” without the final syllable.

Fast forward 20 years. Otter and Ramsay watched as “Oh sweet cana, cana, cana” moved east and gained traction across Canada. By 2017 the new song was the only one in the west and was sung by half the white-throated sparrows in Ontario.

It spreads during the winter. White-throated sparrows from across Canada spend the winter together in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and eastern Texas where mature birds demonstrate their favorite tunes.

The new song caught on rapidly with the younger crowd, probably because the ladies prefer it. Who says songbirds can’t change their tunes?

Read more at The Atlantic’s The Birdsong That Took Over North America.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Audio embedded from Xeno Canto)

Male Mice Sing To Attract The Ladies

House mouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 July 2020

This morning I searched my blog for information on birdsong and was stopped in my tracks by a fascinating article: Male house mice (Mus musculus) sing to woo the ladies.

We don’t realize this because we can’t hear them. Mouse voices are way above our range of hearing but within the hearing range of cats (of course).

Mice sing at a shrill 50 kilohertz (kHz)—and our hearing tops out at just over 20 kHz. Mouse songs might be audible to cats, though, which can hear up to about 65 kHz.

Audubon News: Animal Kingdom Idol: Birdsong vs. Mouse Song

Learn more and watch a male mouse sing in this 2015 article: Mr. Mouse Went A-Courting. (Duke University digitally lowered the audio frequency so we can hear the song.)

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Just One Cicada Makes A Lot Of Noise

19 July 2020

At dusk in July scissor-grinder cicadas (Neotibicen winnemanna) sing from the trees in Pittsburgh. Like birds the male cicadas sing to attract females. Their pulsating drone rises to a crescendo, then drops to a buzz and falls silent. Are they singing in unison? How many are there?

Male scissor-grinders pulse their abdomens as they sing. At close range a single cicada makes a zipper sound. Click here to see another example.

When I’m able to follow the sound I’m often surprised that it’s coming from just one bug who fooled me into thinking a multitude was singing in unison.

Loudness matters. Female scissor-grinder cicadas apparently choose the loudest males.

A single cicada makes a lot of noise.

p.s. Have you heard a different cicada sound in the Pittsburgh area? This article can help you figure out which one: What’s That Sound? Cicadas.

(photo by Kate St. John, embedded videos from YouTube)

Female Birds Do Sing

Male and female northern cardinals, May 2014 (photos by Cris Hamilton)

When I took a class on birdsong in the 1990’s I learned that only male birds sing, the females do not. Then in 2014 that “fact” was turned upside down.  71% of female songbirds do sing.  It’s just that most of them are tropical species. 

The original conclusion was drawn from centuries of observations in Europe and North America. No one had studied birdsong worldwide until a team lead by Karan Odom of University of Maryland published their findings in Nature Communications in March 2014.

Perhaps the old-time observers were blinded by their assumption. There are species in North America whose females sing especially in the Cardinalidae family. For instance, northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) counter-sing and perform duets. Listen for the lady in the background of the recording below (and in this one).

Female blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) sing, too, as recorded by Ted Floyd in Colorado last week.

Learn more about females who sing at the Female Birdsong Project http://femalebirdsong.org. See a partial list of species and listen to the songs at their Why Study Female Song page. Contribute to the project here.

In the meantime, be alert for female songsters this month. In July most birds will stop singing.

p.s. I watched a female purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus) sing in Frick Park on 30 April and 3 May. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record her.

(northern cardinal photos by Cris Hamilton, audio from xeno canto; blue grosbeak photos from Wikimedia Commons; tweet from Ted Floyd)

Birdsong Quiz with Immediate Answers!

Yellow warbler singing (photo by Chuck Tague)

6 June 2020

During #BlackBirdersWeek author, public speaker, photographer and birder Dudley Edmonson tweeted a video birdsong quiz with immediate answers. Click on the screenshot below to listen on Twitter.

How many songs can you identify?

p.s. All five birds are from eastern North America. The yellow warbler pictured above is not on the quiz.

If you don’t hear anything when the Twitter video plays, click the speaker icon on the video at bottom right.

(yellow warbler photo by Chuck Tague, screenshot of Dudley Edmonson tweet)

Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night

Common blackbird singing, Germany, April 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

— 1st stanza from Blackbird by The Beatles

The Beatles’ Blackbird song, recorded in June 1968, always left me with more questions than answers.

  • What is the song about?
  • Who is the blackbird?
  • How could the bird be singing at night when North American blackbirds don’t do that?

At the end of The Beatles recording you can here a blackbird singing. Listen below.

Find out who the blackbird is and what inspired the song at this vintage blog: Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night?

Whip-poor-will

Eastern whip-poor-will at Magee Marsh, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 May 2020

Last evening six of us stood in a dirt parking lot deep in the woods of Washington County and waited for the whip-poor-wills. Twenty minutes after sunset they started to sing.

The eastern whip-poor-will says its name: “whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL.” If you’re close enough you can hear the introductory cluck described at Birds Of The World.

Three notes are easily discerned as the bird pronounces its name, and a fourth introductory cluck may be heard at close range.

— Birds Of The World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We were that close!

Eastern whip-poor-will, Hillman State Park, 26 May 2020 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Eastern whip-poor-wills prefer dry deciduous or mixed forests with little or no underbrush. Hillman State Park, where we were standing, fits the bill. Hillman is a large former strip mine with no amenities, managed for hunting by the PA Game Commission. The habitat and lack of people appeal to the birds.

When whip-poor-wills nest the female lays two eggs on the ground on top of dry leaves, choosing a place where sunlight makes dappled patterns to match her camouflaged plumage. Hall E. Harrison’s Birds’ Nests Field Guide explains:

Incubating bird sits close; when flushed flies silently away like a moth. Eggs usually discovered by accident rather than by search. Friend of author flushed female from 2 eggs, and returning later to point out nest was unable to find it. After careful study, author detected nearly invisible female incubating 4 ft (1.2 m) away.

Birds’ Nests Petersen Field Guide by Hall E. Harrison

Since they operate at night even a singing male is hard to find. As we approached our cars to leave, a whip-poor-will sounded very close. Barb Griffith found him in the dark, calling from a flat rock. This photo isn’t the bird we saw, but you get the idea.

Eastern whip-poor-will, Lancaster, MA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Audio recording by Kate St. John)

Hard To Find By Voice

Female northern cardinal (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Even though birds don’t sing in the winter they still make warning calls so a “cheeping” bird should be easy to find, right? Not necessarily.

Some species, like chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, make sounds that are easy to pinpoint but the calls of others are thin, faint, high notes that are hard to triangulate. Is the bird up or down? To the left or right? In that thicket or the next one?

Here’s a list of winter birds whose warning or contact calls are hard to find. The calls may be insubstantial, but if you recognize the sound you’ll at least know what species is hiding in the bush. (Turn up your speakers.)

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

First on the list is the northern cardinal, shown above. I often identify the call but can’t find the bird. Here’s the contact call of a female, one of the hardest to find (around 7000 Hz).

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

White-throated sparrow (photo by Steve Gosser)

This winter visitor, the white-throated sparrow, has a higher pitched warning call than the song sparrow we hear year round. Listen to the white-throated sparrow’s call (4800-5800 Hz) …

… and compare it to a song sparrow’s (Melospiza melodia) lower pitched “vimp” sound (3500-4200 Hz).

Both sparrows use lower, wider frequency ranges than cardinals so they’re easier to find.

Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

For a really narrow high-pitched frequency you can’t beat the three-note contact call of the golden-crowned kinglet. He’s hard to pinpoint even if you can hear him. Now that I’ve lost my upper range of hearing I rely on friends to tell me when this bird is present. The calls are at 7500-8300 Hertz. Can you hear them? Not I!

Don’t feel bad if you can’t find a bird by its warning or contact call. Even if your hearing is perfect some birds are hiding by voice.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Gosser, see captions)

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

p.s. Here’s the call of an American robin that means “Danger From The Air.”

I can’t hear it anymore. Can you?

American robin danger call at 8000 Hertz

The Story of a Starling

In the spring of 2015, Nature On The Go of Green Oak Twp, Michigan found a baby starling fallen from his nest. Since European starlings are invasive, no rehabber would raise the bird for release into the wild, so Nature On The Go decided to raise the starling as an educational ambassador.

As the starling matured he began to mimic phrases he heard from the people around him. For his role as an Animal Ambassador they taught him phrases that explain how starlings arrived in North America. After all, the starlings’ mimicry is an indirect reason why they were brought here.

Watch the video to hear this startling speak. He’s a “Shakespeare bird.”

(video by Nature On The Go, LLC on YouTube)

Prankster on Camera

Last week Colin Roberts tweeted this video from one of his forest trailcams in southwest Scotland. His cameras record the activities of pine martens but the view is sometimes dominated by another species, the Eurasian jay.

Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) are intelligent, curious, and very vocal mimics. This particular jay punctuates his visits with the sounds of a squeaky tree, a tawny owl, and an amazing Star Wars riff.

Then he gets really close to the lens and … oh my!

(tweet and video by Colin Roberts @PinetenColin, photo from Wikimedia Commons)