Category Archives: Vocalizations

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)

When It’s Cold You Can See The Song

Winter wren singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 January 2022

This morning in my Pittsburgh neighborhood it’s sunny and 9oF. Tomorrow it will be 2oF.

The snow that turned to slush on Wednesday has frozen solid.

Icy footprints in the snow (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s so cold that if the air was calm we would see the breath of singing birds.

When the winter wren sang in April (at top) it was far too warm, but the air was just right to see the song of the European blue tit below.

Are any birds singing in your neighborhood today? Can you see their songs?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and embedded from Twitter; click on the captions to see the originals)

Singing Butchers in Australia’s Spring

Gray butcherbirds in a garden in Brisbane, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 November 2021

While it’s fall in North America it’s spring in Australia and nesting season for birds. One bird in particular has a loud flute-like voice that it uses for claiming territory.

Grey butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) are carnivorous songbirds, larger than robins and smaller than grackles. Their hooked beaks, like those of northern shrikes, help them eat small birds and lizards. Yet when they sing duets or in groups it sounds as clear as a flute.

Wikipedia describes their songs:

All members of the territorial group contribute to the territorial song, a loud and rollicking song with both musical and harsh elements. The song can be sung by only one member, but more often it is sung in duet or as a group. Some duets are antiphonal where it is not obvious that two or more birds are singing. Most songs are sung antiphonally with different group members singing different phases sequentially, with sometimes some overlap. Some songs have been known to last up to 15 minutes. During this time, there is no vocal interaction with groups from other territories.

Wikipedia account of Grey Butcherbird

The grey butcherbirds’ harsh whining reminds me of grackles. Their melodious songs are like nothing else.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from PittwaterEcowarriors on YouTube)

Identify Birdsong With Merlin ID

American redstart singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 June 2021

Before the birds stop singing this summer, you’ll want to try the new Sound ID feature in Cornell Lab’s Merlin ID app. The enhancement was rolled out last week and it’s impressive. You can identify a bird in the field as well as the birds singing nearby.

I tried Sound ID on one of the harder warbler songs, the American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) shown at top, using this recording. Merlin identified the redstart immediately.

Then I tried a tricky mimic, the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), using this Findlay Township recording by Aidan Place. Merlin called it a brown thrasher (oops) and then identified the songs the mockingbird was mimicking. Understandable. I do that too.

Northern mockingbird wing-flash while singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you play a recording of a bird that can’t be where you are right now — for instance a grasshopper sparrow in the City of Pittsburgh on 30 June — the app’s recording feature will not identify it. However you can Import the recording and see who’s singing. It always shows the sonogram, even for high pitched birds, so I can “see” the birds I cannot hear.

Download the app at https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org and try it for yourself.

screenshot of Merlin Sound ID from merlin.allaboutbirds.org

Birding has just gotten a lot easier.

p.s. Missing something? Cornell Lab will add more birds in future updates.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from merlin.allaboutbirds.org; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Most Beautiful Song

Wood thrush singing (photo by Shawn Collins)

13 June 2021

Right now Schenley Park is full of singing wood thrushes. In recent days I’ve counted a dozen every time I walk the trails.

On Friday morning, 11 June, this wood thrush sang his heart out at the Bartlett end of Panther Hollow. It’s the most beautiful song in Schenley Park.

Get outdoors now to hear the wood thrushes. They will stop singing in July.

(photo by Shawn Collins, recording by Kate St. John)