Category Archives: Vocalizations

All The Orchard Orioles Sing

Orchard oriole singing at Frick Park, 26 April 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

9 May 2023

This year the orchard orioles, smallest of the blackbirds (Icterids), returned to Pittsburgh in late April. We knew they were back when we heard this male singing near Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run boardwalk on 26 April. Ten days later we returned to the boardwalk and heard him again but it was a different bird — an immature male — and we remembered this: You can’t assume the singing bird is an adult male. In fact in the spring all the orchard orioles sing.

Orchard orioles (Icterus spurius) spend most of their lives in Central and South America and only a short time on their breeding grounds in southwestern PA from late April to August/September.

Orchard oriole range map from eBird Science

Adult males start singing in Central America before they head north. When they get here they sing during the nesting season and continue while feeding young. Then they fall silent. May is the best time to hear them.

Adult male voices are wiry and rapid with no pattern to the song. Here are two examples:

Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) · song Eric DeFonso, Xeno Canto XC792284
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) · song Eric Zawatski Xeno Canto XC559298

Immature males sing, too.

Immature male orchard oriole (photo by Donna Foyle)

One-year-old males look different than adults and to a discerning listener — the female orchard oriole — they also sound different. Singing is a learning process and these yellow-green guys with black faces aren’t accomplished songsters yet. Here are two examples of immature male songs.

Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) · song Matthew L. Brady, Xeno Canto, XC781951
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)” by Sue Riffe, Xeno Canto, XC680711

Females sing as well. Birds of the World explains: “Most tropical icterids have a female song and, ancestrally, the whole family is thought to have this behavior. Female Orchard Orioles sing throughout the breeding period with songs that are structurally distinct from those of males. … Their songs are statistically different in 5 of 8 acoustic variables (full song duration, syllable duration, maximum frequency, bandwidth and percent pause), and are easily distinguished by ear in the field.”

Click on the screenshot of the female below to watch and hear her sing.

Screenshot from video of female orchard oriole singing, Macaulay Library ML 238170941

So just when you think that singing bird is male, remember there are species in which all of them sing.

Read more the orchard oriole at All About Birds.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi and Donna Foyle, range map from eBird, female oriole screenshot from Macaulay Library; click on the caption links for further details)

How Plain-Tailed Wrens Sing The Perfect Duet

Plain-tailed wren at banding station, Bellavista, Pichincha, Ecuador, 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 April 2023

Eighty days ago at Ecuador’s Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve our tour group heard this species singing from a thicket and added him — or perhaps a pair of them — to our Life Lists.

The plain-tailed wren (Pheugopedius euophrys) is hard to see but its incredibly loud voice is easy to hear, made doubly loud when a pair sings a complicated duet. The duet below was recorded near Tandayapa, perhaps at Bellavista, while other birds were singing in the background. The plain-tailed wrens drown them out.

Intrigued by the birds’ fast-paced, precise duet, researchers in 2021 studied the birds’ brain waves to find the signal that governed the interchange. Instead of an added signal they discovered that, “the species synchronizes their frenetically paced duets by inhibiting the song-making regions of their partner’s brain as they exchange phrases.” The listener’s brain hears something from the partner that mutes his/her own song-making at just the right moment.

“Think of these birds like jazz singers,” said lead author Melissa Coleman. “Duetting wrens have a rough song structure planned before they sing, but as the song evolves, they must rapidly coordinate by receiving constant input from their counterpart.

“What we expected to find was a highly active set of specialized neurons that coordinate this turn-taking, but instead what we found is that hearing each other actually causes inhibition of those neurons—that’s the key regulating the incredible timing between the two.”

It’s not too far-flung to think of these birds as jazz singers. “There are similar brain circuits in humans that are involved in learning and coordinating vocalizations. [Lead authors] Fortune and Coleman say the results offer a fresh look into how the brains of humans and other cooperating animals use sensory cues to act in concert with each other” just like jazz singers.

Here’s one more duet from Tandayapa, Ecuador. Amazing.

Read more at Good News Network: Duetting Songbirds ‘Mute’ the Musical Mind of Their Partner to Stay in Sync, Researchers Find. (quotes above are from this article.)

See the original study at PNAS: Neurophysiological coordination of duet singing.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio embedded from Xeno Canto; click on the links to see the originals)

Pigeons Clap In Courtship

Rock pigeon in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 March 2023

It’s spring and our local pigeons (Columba livia) are prancing in courtship. The males bow and coo to their chosen mates and accompany their ladies in flight. When their courtship is successful the males clap their wings.

You can hear cooing and wing clapping in this audio clip …

… and see it as they fly in this video.

video from @MrMattperry on YouTube

Learn their courtship moves in this vintage article. Keep track of the pairs you see on the pavement. Pigeons mate for life!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from @MrMattperry on YouTube, click on the captions to see the original)

Did A Blue Jay Make That Sound?

Blue jay at Frick Park, January 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

27 February 2023

Spring is coming and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are talking about it. In addition to their typical “Jeer!” calls, they now make odd sounds that you might not recognize.

Here are two courtship season sounds, Pumphandle and Rattle, followed by an everyday “Jeer!” (You’ll also hear a crow, white-breasted nuthatch and others in this sound bite.)

Blue jays bob up and down when they make the Pumphandle sound and, according to the Stokes Guide, it “may be directed at other males in a courtship group or a predator.” When it’s directed at a predator it’s a low intensity comment as if to say, “I see you, Hawk, but you’re not threatening yet.”

Rattle calls are made only by females! Vassar’s website says, they’re “a series of rapid clicks that often have one sharp click at the beginning and end of the call, often emitted within a flock, as alert calls, or when another jay intrudes on a pair’s space.”

Seeing is believing. Watch the spring calls and sounds of blue jays in two videos by Lesley The Bird Nerd.

If you heard these sounds without seeing the bird making them, would you think it was a blue jay?

(photo by Charity Kheshgi, videos embedded from Lesley The Bird Nerd)

Cloud Forest Songs That Remind Me of Home

Cloud forest near Alambi Reserve, Pichincha, Ecuador (photo by Kate St. John)

12 February 2023

While listening to birdsong in the cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador I heard two songs that reminded me of home. Neither bird is colorful. Their songs are beautiful.

The “Wood Thrush of the Andes”

Andean solitaire, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as I heard the Andean solitaire (Myadestes ralloides) his voice reminded me of the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). The solitaire’s syrinx allows him to harmonize with himself just like a wood thrush and his cadence is similar though his voice is higher. In my field notes I dubbed him “The Wood Thrush of the Andes.” Listen to him below and see what you think.

For comparison, here’s a wood thrush in Schenley Park last spring.

Wood thrush in Schenley Park, 13 May 2022 (video by Kate St. John)

(American) “Robin of the Andes”

Ecuadorian thrush with a bit of banana on his beak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Ecuadorian thrush (Turdus maculirostris) looks like a large dull-colored American robin (Turdus migratorius) while his song is similar but better. It’s no wonder they are similar, they’re in the same genus. Listen to the Ecuadorian thrush below and see if you agree that he’s the “Robin of the Andes.”

Ecuadorian thrush singing in the rain:

Ecuadorian thrush morning chorus:

For comparison, here’s the spring song of an American robin during the morning chorus.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto; click on the captions to see the originals)

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,, 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 below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from

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)