Category Archives: Vocalizations

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?

Whip-poor-will

Eastern whip-poor-will at Magee Marsh, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 May 2020

Last evening six of us stood in a dirt parking lot deep in the woods of Washington County and waited for the whip-poor-wills. Twenty minutes after sunset they started to sing.

The eastern whip-poor-will says its name: “whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL.” If you’re close enough you can hear the introductory cluck described at Birds Of The World.

Three notes are easily discerned as the bird pronounces its name, and a fourth introductory cluck may be heard at close range.

— Birds Of The World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We were that close!

Eastern whip-poor-will, Hillman State Park, 26 May 2020 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Eastern whip-poor-wills prefer dry deciduous or mixed forests with little or no underbrush. Hillman State Park, where we were standing, fits the bill. Hillman is a large former strip mine with no amenities, managed for hunting by the PA Game Commission. The habitat and lack of people appeal to the birds.

When whip-poor-wills nest the female lays two eggs on the ground on top of dry leaves, choosing a place where sunlight makes dappled patterns to match her camouflaged plumage. Hall E. Harrison’s Birds’ Nests Field Guide explains:

Incubating bird sits close; when flushed flies silently away like a moth. Eggs usually discovered by accident rather than by search. Friend of author flushed female from 2 eggs, and returning later to point out nest was unable to find it. After careful study, author detected nearly invisible female incubating 4 ft (1.2 m) away.

Birds’ Nests Petersen Field Guide by Hall E. Harrison

Since they operate at night even a singing male is hard to find. As we approached our cars to leave, a whip-poor-will sounded very close. Barb Griffith found him in the dark, calling from a flat rock. This photo isn’t the bird we saw, but you get the idea.

Eastern whip-poor-will, Lancaster, MA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Audio recording by Kate St. John)

Hard To Find By Voice

Female northern cardinal (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Even though birds don’t sing in the winter they still make warning calls so a “cheeping” bird should be easy to find, right? Not necessarily.

Some species, like chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, make sounds that are easy to pinpoint but the calls of others are thin, faint, high notes that are hard to triangulate. Is the bird up or down? To the left or right? In that thicket or the next one?

Here’s a list of winter birds whose warning or contact calls are hard to find. The calls may be insubstantial, but if you recognize the sound you’ll at least know what species is hiding in the bush. (Turn up your speakers.)

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

First on the list is the northern cardinal, shown above. I often identify the call but can’t find the bird. Here’s the contact call of a female, one of the hardest to find (around 7000 Hz).

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

White-throated sparrow (photo by Steve Gosser)

This winter visitor, the white-throated sparrow, has a higher pitched warning call than the song sparrow we hear year round. Listen to the white-throated sparrow’s call (4800-5800 Hz) …

… and compare it to a song sparrow’s (Melospiza melodia) lower pitched “vimp” sound (3500-4200 Hz).

Both sparrows use lower, wider frequency ranges than cardinals so they’re easier to find.

Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

For a really narrow high-pitched frequency you can’t beat the three-note contact call of the golden-crowned kinglet. He’s hard to pinpoint even if you can hear him. Now that I’ve lost my upper range of hearing I rely on friends to tell me when this bird is present. The calls are at 7500-8300 Hertz. Can you hear them? Not I!

Don’t feel bad if you can’t find a bird by its warning or contact call. Even if your hearing is perfect some birds are hiding by voice.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Gosser, see captions)

American robin, skygazing (photo by Joel Kluger, Creative Commons license via Flickr)
American robin, skygazing (photo by Joel Kluger via Flickr)

p.s. Here’s the call of an American robin that means “Danger From The Air.”

I can’t hear it anymore. Can you?

American robin danger call at 8000 Hertz

The Story of a Starling

In the spring of 2015, Nature On The Go of Green Oak Twp, Michigan found a baby starling fallen from his nest. Since European starlings are invasive, no rehabber would raise the bird for release into the wild, so Nature On The Go decided to raise the starling as an educational ambassador.

As the starling matured he began to mimic phrases he heard from the people around him. For his role as an Animal Ambassador they taught him phrases that explain how starlings arrived in North America. After all, the starlings’ mimicry is an indirect reason why they were brought here.

Watch the video to hear this startling speak. He’s a “Shakespeare bird.”

(video by Nature On The Go, LLC on YouTube)

Prankster on Camera

Last week Colin Roberts tweeted this video from one of his forest trailcams in southwest Scotland. His cameras record the activities of pine martens but the view is sometimes dominated by another species, the Eurasian jay.

Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) are intelligent, curious, and very vocal mimics. This particular jay punctuates his visits with the sounds of a squeaky tree, a tawny owl, and an amazing Star Wars riff.

Then he gets really close to the lens and … oh my!

(tweet and video by Colin Roberts @PinetenColin, photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Visualize Bird Song

Screenshot from Bird Song Hero tutorial (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Now that the birds are singing again and more singers will arrive on migration, it’s time to practice identifying songs by ear. Yes, it’s hard to do but it’s easier if you can visualize the song.

Just like a sheet of music, a spectrogram of bird song shows how the frequency (pitch) goes up and down. The black dashes graph the frequency and length of the notes. The brown wave graphs loudness in decibels.

Song sparrow spectrogram for Xeno Canto audio XC374118 (audio by Ted Floyd)

Play the matching audio to hear the graph: a song sparrow recorded by Ted Floyd, Xeno Canto XC374118.

This is just one example but you can learn to do it yourself and practice with two quizzes at Cornell Lab’s All About Birds.

  1. Learn how to read the spectrograms that visualize bird song in this video: Bird Song Hero Tutorial.
  2. Two quizzes follow the video or you can try them independently at the Bird Song Hero Challenge. TIP: Watch the sonogram as it plays! Some of them are tricky.

p.s. Did you know that birds sing harmonies we can’t hear? On the song sparrow spectrogram, above, there are tall vertical dashes during the fast part of the song. The bird is harmonizing with himself in the 12,000 HZ frequency. If you’re older than 30-something, you probably can’t hear it.

(screenshot from Bird Song Hero tutorial (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sonogram and audio from Xeno Canto XC374118 by Ted Floyd)

p.p.s Xeno Canto calls the graphs “sonograms.” It’s an older word for spectrogram. Here’s the difference between “spectrogram” and “sonogram.”

I Can See, But Not Hear Them Singing

Can you hear the golden-crowned kinglets in this video? They are very loud but I can’t hear them at all, though I can see their beaks moving. Their voices are at a high frequency I no longer hear.

All About Birds explains:

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Golden-crowned kinglets sing an ascending, accelerating series of up to 14 very high-pitched tsee notes lasting up to 3 seconds and sometimes ending in a musical warble that drops an octave or more in pitch. This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age. 

All About Birds, Golden-crowned kinglet sounds

If you can’t hear the kinglets you are probably over age 65, perhaps younger, and probably have age-related hearing loss. 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 Hz range.” Kinglets vocalize around 8,000 HZ.

What are HZ? Sounds cause vibrations and are measured in vibrations per second: 1 Hertz (HZ) is 1 vibration/second. High-pitched sounds vibrate faster than low pitched sounds so “high pitch” is also “high frequency.”

At birth humans can hear sounds from about 20 to 20,000 HZ but we start losing our upper range of hearing at age 18! Most of us don’t miss sounds above 17,000HZ but some teenagers in the UK will. They capitalized on the age-related hearing difference by creating a “mosquito whine” ringtone that teachers cannot hear. See and hear it on NPR.

The kinglets in the video are vocalizing at 7700 to 8400 HZ as shown in this graph from the Spectroid app on my mobile phone. The pink scale at the bottom shows the kinglets singing in the 8000 HZ area (at right) and my voice below 5000 HZ (long pink lines on the left). (Top graph shows loudness in decibels.)

So now I have two ways to see golden-crowned kinglets singing. I can watch their beaks or I can watch the Spectroid graph on my mobile phone.

Perhaps if I point my cellphone in the woods I’d see if any golden-crowned kinglets are out there.

p.s. Click here for a video that explains age-related hearing loss & helps you answer the question “How Old Are Your Ears?

(photo of golden-crowned kinglet by Steve Gosser, Spectroid graph recorded by Kate St. John; video by The Wood Thrush Shop on YouTube)

Identifying Bird Song: You Know More Than You Think

Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)
Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)

After months of silence, spring is coming and the birds are singing again. It’s the best time of year to practice identifying birds by song.

No matter your skill level there’s always more to learn. If you’re an expert, it’s time to practice songs heard only once a year during spring migration. (Cape May warbler!)

If you’re new to bird song you probably think, “It’s so hard to learn bird song. I don’t know anything!”

Here are two hot tips to help birders at any level.

Tip #1: You’ll learn the song better if you see the bird singing. We humans are visual learners. Look for the unknown singer and watch him sing.

The eastern phoebe pictured above looks plain but he’s easy to identify by song because he says his name: FEE bee! FEE bee! The author of the video below went looking for the bird to watch him sing. It’s a bit seasick-making 😉

Tip #2: Keep at it! You already know some bird songs. Just build from there, one bird at a time.

Here are three birds most people can identify. I bet you can, too.

Bird #1 (Xeno Canto 454252, recorded in Norfolk County, MA by Will Sweet)

Bird #2 (Xeno Canto 421264, recorded in Tompkins County, NY by Gabriel Leite)

Bird #3 (Xeno Canto 399153, recorded in Harrison Hills Park, Allegheny County, PA by Aidan Place) This recording is faint so you may have to turn up the sound … and hear it raining.

You already know more than you think.

(photo of eastern phoebe by Peter Bell. Xeno Canto recordings identified and linked in the captions above)