Category Archives: Vocalizations

Changing Into Summer Clothes

Common starlings in non-breeding and breeding plumage (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

23 February 2021

Cold weather will end soon in Pittsburgh with a high tomorrow of 60 degrees F(!) but even if the cold returns we know spring is on the way by observing our starlings.

In February starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) start changing into breeding plumage from spotted brown with dark beak and legs (left above) into iridescent glossy black with yellow beak and bright orange legs (right). From what I’ve seen, the beak starts first.

Even now, before they change into breeding plumage, they start to sing their wiry song.

By the end of March they’ll be wearing summer clothes, singing and flapping to attract a mate.

How far along are your starlings? Do they have yellow beaks yet?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)

Found The Crows!

Twilight over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh. Crows swirl near Heinz chimneys, 6 Feb 2021, 5:50pm, taken at 25th St (photo by Kate St. John)

9 February 2021

Every night, from late October 2020 through mid January 2021, Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock staged or roosted in Oakland. 20,000 to 24,000 crows came through Oakland during the Christmas Bird Count, then suddenly around 21 January they were gone. They didn’t even fly over. They hadn’t left town yet … so where did they go?

On 31 January I posted Where Did the Crows Go? and everyone pitched in with news. Diana, David and Dah mentioned huge numbers at Heinz Lofts. Riley Baker’s video from Spring Hill City View showed crows staging nearby at sunset. On Saturday I scouted for a place to stand with a sunset view of Heinz Lofts and thanks to you I …

Found the crows!

From my vantage point at 25th Street on 6 February it looks like all 20,000 flew over the North Shore and Troy Hill. At top and below thousands are silhouetted against the sky near the Heinz chimneys. (Click on the photo below for a larger version)

Thousands of crows fly past the Heinz chimneys to roost at the river’s edge, 6 Feb 2021, 5:50pm (photo by Kate St. John)

They began to roost in trees along the Allegheny River and on the hillside above Rt 28 at Troy Hill Road.

Crows flying past Troy Hill near Allegheny River roost, 6 Feb 2021 5:55pm (photo by Kate St. John)

On Sunday night, after they’d settled in, I observed them from the Heinz Lofts sidewalk at River Road. Thousands of crows look like black leaves in the trees.

Crows roosting at Allegheny River near Heinz Lofts, 7 Feb 2021, 7:40pm (photo by Kate St. John)
Crows roosting at Allegheny River near Heinz Lofts, 7 Feb 2021, 7:38pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Even in the dark they cawed and murmured and whined. There are no human voices in my recording. Except for the electrical hum, it’s all the sound of crows.

Yesterday I stopped by one more time to count the roost trees, estimating that 8,000 crows sleep by the river from Heinz Lofts to the old boat launch.

This is the perfect place to roost. No one has to clean up after them.

The crows are gone from Oakland but not forgotten. 🙂

p.s. Crows are also roosting nearby on the hillside above Rt 28 but I’m not going to count there… too dangerous!

p.s. Thanks to Mary Brush @jeepgrl18 for this tip: You can see the crows at dusk on this webcam: Earthcam.com — Pittsburgh.

(photos and audio by Kate St. John)

Whispering Sweet Nothings?

American crow pair in Seattle, Dec 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 January 2021

As the days get longer, members of the winter crow flock start to think of spring. In only six weeks the flock will start dispersing for their breeding territories so those without a mate need to find one soon. Crows mate for life but they don’t pair up until sexually mature at age two. Time is of the essence for young unattached crows.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed new behavior as Pittsburgh’s crows fly to the roost. More aggressive chases and playful tumbling in the sky appear to be interpersonal jousting and perhaps courtship.

Their vocal repertoire is expanding, too. Beyond their raucous caws, crows are making quiet noises when they perch. Here are a few examples.

Rattle call: Kaeli Swift, PhD @corvidresearch says the rattle call is made by female crows.

In the video below a pair vocalizes at a feeder. One bows and rattles (female), the other bobs and ‘welps.’ Then a crowd shows up.

And finally, this crow is making a strange sound. Is he barking?

Do crows whisper sweet nothings to each other? No human can say for sure.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original; videos embedded from YouTube)

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

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?