Category Archives: Vocalizations

Bird Calls in the Dark

Swainson’s thrush, May 2019, Toronto, ON (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 September 2022

If you’re awake one to two hours before dawn on a calm September night, put your ear to the sky and you may hear birds calling overhead in the dark.

Millions of birds migrate at night and call in flight to maintain contact with their fellow travelers. In the one-to-two hours before dawn they begin their descent and are easier to hear but it takes dedication or insomnia to be awake during those prime sleeping hours.

Fortunately with the advent of microphones, recording devices and sonogram technology, ornithologists and amateurs have recorded nocturnal flight calls (NFC) and can identify who’s calling as they fly by. The sonograms are like fingerprints for each species and can be compared at this quick reference website, NocturnalFlightCalls.com, announced this month by Tessa Rhinehart at the University of Pittsburgh’s @KitzesLab.

Many calls, especially those of warblers, are so high-pitched that they are outside my range of hearing so here are three examples of some easily audible nocturnal flight calls.

The Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus), above, has such a distinctive flight call that you can identify it in the dark by sound. All About Birds describes the call as a hollow peep that resembles the call of a spring peeper frog.

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) repeats a single rough whistle.

Rose-breasted grosbeak (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Rose-breasted grosbeak (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Click here for a clearer version of the rose-breasted grosbeak flight call that was “photo-bombed” by a killdeer.

Though it is extremely unlikely to hear a dickcissel (Spiza americana) fly over Pennsylvania, this sound is so distinct that it’s worth a listen.

Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Leanr more about nocturnal flight calls at Nocturnal Flight Call FAQs from David Brown. He recorded dickcissels during the 2017 irruption over Montoursville, PA.

Make your own NFC recorder using a microphone, a dinner plate, a bucket and a computer. Instructions and information at Nemesis Bird’s Night Flight Call primer. (This article may be as old as 2012.)

Know which nights will be good for listening by checking BirdCast’s migration forecast.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Cris Hamilton and Anthony Bruno; recordings embedded from Xeno Canto)

Chipmunks Chip and Tock

Chipmunk with full cheeks (photo by Chuck Tague)

15 September 2022

At this time of year the birds are not singing but you often hear a “chip” note in the woods. It’s not the sound of a bird but instead a chipmunk, making the noise that puts “chip” in his name.

“Chip” is warning sound that means Danger From the Ground. Chip Chip Chip Chip, the speaker is warning of a ground-based predator — a cat, raccoon, snake, etc.

Chipmunks “chip” at different speeds, even during the same chipping session, as seen in the 4.5 minute video below. The tonal quality and variable speed give us a hint that it’s a chipmunk speaking, not a bird.

The second most common chipmunk sound is another warning.

“Tock” means Danger From The Air — a clue that birders should look for a raptor. Tock Tock Tock Tock. Listen and learn in this vintage article.

p.s. This article explains the chipmunk’s vocalizations: What Sounds Does A Chipmunk Make?

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Female Mockingbirds Sing in the Fall

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

30 August 2022

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are special because they challenge our assumptions.

It was a wonder in 2014 when, after centuries of ornithologists saying that only male birds sing, Karan Odom at University of Maryland documented singing females. Most of the species live in the tropics but even back then 150 female-singing species were documented in North America.

After this breakthrough female singing became a hot study topic and more species were added to the list. Recent studies delve deeper. Do northern mockingbird females mimic like males? A study published this April found that they do.

Mockingbirds are also unusual because they sing in autumn when other birds are silent. They do it because they change location. Those that nest in the northern end of their range migrate south while others move locally (see animated eBird map). When mockingbirds “reappear” in September they are singing again to claim new territory.

Northern mockingbird, Nov 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Males and females look alike and they aren’t paired up in winter so we cannot tell which sex is singing. Nevertheless we can hear them. Here are some examples.

28 Sep 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio:

7 Nov 2019 in Harlingen, TX:

I see mockingbirds in Pittsburgh in the winter. Are they local transplants or from further north? Are they male or female? I dunno.

Northern mockingbird wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Swallow or Swift?

Chimney swifts (from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2022

Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?

This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by audubon.org below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from Audubon.org.

Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.

Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows (from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.

Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.

(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.

(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Test Your Hearing

Cape May warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Chuck Tague)

17 May 2022

Did you know that age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, affects 1 out of 3 of people by age 65 and half of us by age 75?

The CDC explains that “the most important sounds we hear every day are in the 250 to 6,000 Hertz range.” Fortunately for those with presbycusis, frequencies above the “important” range are the first to go.

In my 40’s I learned to identify birds by ear but my skill has come undone in recent years because some birds, especially warblers, sing above 6,000 Hz. I would not have noticed it except that I go birding with people who hear well and can identify birds by song. They point out birds I cannot hear.

This spring I’ve watched a few warblers open their mouths, vibrate their throats, and say nothing! Can you hear them? Turn up your speakers and test your hearing.

Cape May Warbler, 8250 Hertz: In this 2-second recording the Cape May Warbler (photo at top) sings a single high-pitched trill.

Blackpoll warbler song, 8,000 Hertz:

Blackpoll warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

The blackpoll sings loudly 4 times in the audio below — at the beginning (3 seconds), end (46 seconds) and at 17 and 31 seconds into the recording. If you don’t hear anything really loud you are not hearing the blackpoll.

Black-and-white warbler, 5500 – 6750 Hertz:

Black-and-white warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

In this recording the black-and-white warbler sings four notes in quick succession. The loudest parts of his song are at two frequencies: 5500 and 6750. I can hear this warbler if there’s not a lot of background noise. Otherwise no.

Fortunately Cornell Lab has produced a bird identification tool that also functions as a “bird hearing” aid. Download Merlin to your cellphone and use the Sound ID feature. Your phone will hear the birds that you cannot!

p.s. By now my ears have told you my age. How old are your ears? Check out this video which also explains why so many people have age-related hearing loss.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Best In Song

14 May 2022

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) are back in Schenley Park after their winter sojourn in Central America.

Yesterday this one used his beautiful voice to claim a nesting territory near the Bartlett tufa bridge. Click here or on the screenshot below to hear him sing.

Of all the birds he wins “Best In Song.”

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video by Kate St. John)

Starlings Tell the Past and Future

European starling singing in April (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 April 2022

The Past as told by Starlings

In the spring starlings sing their wiry scratchy songs, punctuated with puttering sounds and embellished with mimicry of other birds. They usually copy their neighbors but like to add the coolest sounds of migrating birds. Starlings tell us what they heard in the past few days and nights.

Have you heard a killdeer call from a city housetop? It’s a starling telling you he heard a killdeer recently. Other examples include.

  • Mimicking an eastern meadowlark.
  • Mimicking the Eurasian oystercatcher in Scotland, the starling “calls from a roost in a building after a night of heavy passage of migrant oystercatchers.”
  • Mimicking his neighbors in Toronto, including American goldfinch and red-tailed hawk at 0:53 – 1:07. He’s so good at it that he fooled my Merlin Bird ID app.

The Future as told by Starlings

“You will see a raptor overhead.”

Starlings make a wiry spitting alarm-call that means “Danger From The Air!” If you hear this call, look up to see a raptor. The starling tells your future.    (Note: In this recording from Colorado, the robin-like song in the background is a black-headed grosbeak.)

Bonus Bird ID: The Virtuoso For those of you familiar with birdsong in southern California, this starling in San Diego County will give you a run for your money! It even fooled the Merlin Bird ID app. The recording’s description says. “Much mimicry including Northern Flicker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Mountain Quail, Mountain Chickadee, California Towhee, Acorn Woodpecker, Killdeer, and perhaps American Kestrel and Common Poorwill.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio embedded from Xeno Canto. Click on the caption links to see the originals)

The Grackles Are Back!

Common grackle. “Skrinnnk!” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 March 2022

The grackles are back!

During the winter common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are mostly absent from Pennsylvania but in early March they head north to nest. Their return began this week with a trickle of solo birds on Tues 1 March which grew to small flocks of 5-7 on Thursday. Very soon large flocks will pass through on their way to Canada, taking over feeders and backyards as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s in this 2005 photo.

Common grackles take over the yard, spring 2005 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Even if you don’t see them you will hear the grackles announce themselves. Look to the treetops to see the males puff and “skrinnk!”

This week’s scouts are the early birds. More grackles are definitely on the way. Look at the difference in eBird reports between December-February and March-May!

  • eBird: Common grackle sightings, Dec-Feb past 10 years

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) sightings, winter vs spring, past 10 years (retrieved from eBird on 3 Mar 2022)

Use eBird and your sightings will be added to the maps.

(photos from Marcy Cunkelman and Wikimedia Commons; distribution maps from eBird retrieved on 3 March 2022; click on the captions to see the originals)

He Doesn’t Sound Like a Tufted Titmouse

Tufted titmouse, Nov 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

21 February 2022

If you listen to birds and have learned to identify a few songs, our resident tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is an easy one. His typical spring song is a clear whistled “Pete, Pete, Pete” or “Peter, Peter, Peter.”

However he has some tricks up his sleeve. He may get creative with a different-sounding Peter. This one (near a red-winged blackbird) sings “jury, jury, jury” almost like a Carolina wren.

Sometimes he’s really loud and I wonder, Who is that??

Or he sings an oddly accented Peter also quite loud (cardinal in the background).

And here, in an unattended AudioMoth recording, he doesn’t sound like a titmouse at all.


If it’s a song you can’t figure out at a time of year when new migrants have not yet returned maybe it’s a tufted titmouse.

(photo by Steve Gosser, audio from Xeno Canto)

Who’s Singing Now?

Northern cardinal, singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 February 2022

With the spring equinox only five weeks away on 20 March, local songbirds have begun to sing to claim their territories.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) rejoined the soundscape in the last week or two. If you hear a loud “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer” look for the singer perched prominently nearby. Listen for two cardinals singing, one near one far, in this recording.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are some of the earliest to resume singing. They piped up in January.

Song sparrow, singing (photo by Peter Bell)

Each male song sparrow has a unique variation on the basic song. The typical pattern begins with 3 introductory notes, then a warbling jumble that ends with a higher or lower note than the rest of the song. Here are two examples:

Though the flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) in Pittsburgh now are probably migrants that will leave in March, they can’t help but sing in fine weather.

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Listen for their “Evening Song” at the end of the day.

When the sun shines in early February some other birds sing, too, including Carolina wrens and tufted titmice.

Get your ears in tune while there aren’t many singing so you’ll be ready when they all sing at once in April.

(photos by Peter Bell and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)