Category Archives: Vocalizations

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)

Who’s Singing Now?

Male house finch (photo by Cris Hamilton)

21 March 2021

When the big waves of migrating songbirds arrive in April and May we will be swamped with birdsong too numerous to list. That hasn’t happened yet so I can still tell you a few birds we’re hearing this week in Pittsburgh.

House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), show at top, have been singing for a couple of weeks. The males prefer to sing close to their potential nest so it’s a good place to watch for a drab female house finch. The recording below begins with finchy call notes and changes to song.

Did you know … ?

Though common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) nest communally the males always challenge each other to win a favorite lady. You’ll see them puff their feathers and hear them “skrink!”

Male common grackle puffing and calling, Toronto (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) returned to urban Pittsburgh this month and are claiming their favorite territories with mimicked songs. Though he sounds like a lot of other birds you can identify a mockingbird because he repeats the same tune three+ times before he changes.

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Did you know … ?

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons)

Singing Before Dawn

Pair of northern cardinals (photo by Steve Gosser)

16 March 2021

Now that we’ve changed to Daylight Saving Time sunrise is an hour later. Perhaps you’re getting up in the dark this week and have heard birds singing before dawn. Who are these early songsters? Here are three species you’ll hear in mid-March in Pittsburgh.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are early birds. Awake before dawn, they sing while it’s still dark. Both male and female sing.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are early risers, too.

Song sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

 In brightly lit urban areas, some song sparrows will sing through the night, apparently thinking the sun is just about to rise!

Song Sparrow description, American Bird Conservancy

In mid-March, large flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) stopover in Pittsburgh on their way north. They arrive at night, then sing before dawn. The sound of an entire flock singing at once is a special experience.

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s their dawn song:

And their dusk song:

It’s worth getting up before dawn to hear them.

(photos by Steve Gosser, Chuck Tague and Wikimedia Commons)

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)