Category Archives: Vocalizations

Danger From The Air!

European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)
European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)

I’m sure you’ve seen starlings fly away to avoid a predator.  Have you heard their warning signal?

Over the years I’ve noticed that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) make a spitting sound just before they flee.  Sometimes only one or two birds call the alarm, a sharp note repeated three or more times.  It sounds like this.

When I look for the reason they’re making the sound, I always see a hawk in the air.  I’ve learned to look for a raptor when I hear that sound.

The starlings must be saying, “Danger From The Air!”


(photo of starling flock by Pat Gaines on Flickr; click on the image to see the original. Recording of common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) by Toon Jansen at xeno-canto #XC393749)

Warned By A Feather

Birds use alarm calls to warn each other of danger but pigeons are generally silent.  What sound could a pigeon make to signal danger?  The crested pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) of Australia uses his 8th feather.

Crested pigeons make a whistling sound when they fly — a high note on the down stroke, a low note going up.  Researchers found out that the eighth primary feather is the source of the high note and that the speed of the low-high modulation provides the warning.

When a bird flaps slowly the whistle repeats slowly, so other pigeons decide the bird is not afraid.  When the sound repeats rapidly it sounds like the pigeon is fleeing, so the other birds do, too.

Watch the video or read about this discovery here in Science Magazine.


p.s.  Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) make a similar whistling sound when they fly.  I wonder if it functions as a warning sound.

(video from Science Magazine)

Singing In November

Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)
Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)

This fall migrating mockingbirds came back to town to spend the winter.

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) were a southern species that now nest as far north as southern Canada. In autumn the birds move south and some decide that Pittsburgh is as far as they need to go.  New arrivals immediately set up territory and warn off other mockingbirds by singing, “Mine, Mine, Mine.”

The songs are pretty, and pretty confusing because mockingbirds mimic other species.  For instance, this Xeno Canto recording by Joshua Stevenson has an American robin sound at 0:11.  No it’s not a robin.

When I walk around my neighborhood this month I hear 15 different songs but they come from only two locations.  Two mockingbirds are “dueling” from opposite sides of Magee Field, the only birds singing in November.

Read how mockingbirds create The Voice of a Crowd in this vintage article from 2010.


(photo by Don Weiss; audio Xeno Canto #XC170052 by Jonathan Stevenson)

What’s That Sound? Cicadas

Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)

What’s that sound?  In July the birds stop singing and the bugs begin.  Some sing during the day, others at night.  We usually don’t see what’s making the noise but sometimes we can identify the bugs by song.  Here’s a group of insects that are fairly easy to figure out.

Cicadas sing during the day and they are loud.  Some songs are so unique that you can identify the bug if you know what to listen for.

Here are audio descriptions for five common species of annual(*) cicadas in southwestern Pennsylvania in order of “most likely to hear/notice,” at least in my experience.

As with birds, pay attention to the habitat where you hear a cicada.  Swamp cicadas, for example, are only found in swamps or marshes.

  1. Scissor grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus).  Easiest sound to identify.
  2. Linne’s cicada (Neotibicen linnei)
  3. Lyric cicada (Neotibicen lyricen)
  4. Dog Day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis)   This is the sound of a hot day in Maine.
  5. Swamp cicada (Neotibicen tibicen tibicen)
    • Song: burry, rattling, very rapid “wappa wappa wappa wappa” with rich round background sound that rises and falls in pitch from start to end
    • When?  early morning until noon
    • Where? found only in swamps and marshes
    • Click here to hear Swamp cicada at


Identifying cicada songs are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sounds of bugs.  There are an amazing number of vocal bugs including crickets, katydids and grasshoppers.

Have you heard a bug you can’t identify?  Click here for the Songs of Insects guide to common insect species and their sounds.   There are 80 species on this page!


(photo by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. Annual(*) cicadas have a life cycle of 2-5 years but they seem “annual” because some individuals in each species reach adulthood every year (i.e. the species appears annually).

p.p.s  There aren’t many scissor-grinders in my neighborhood this year.  I wonder if they had a bad reproductive year the last time this brood was above ground.  How long do scissor-grinders take to reach adulthood?  If it’s 5 years then that’d be 2012, a very hot year.  Hmmm.

The Most Beautiful Song on Earth

I used to think that the wood thrush had the best song of all North American birds until I stood on a trail in north central Michigan this week surrounded by singing hermit thrushes.  What a privilege to hear them!

If you’ve never experienced their ethereal song, don’t put off the experience for two decades as I did. Hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) nest on the ground in coniferous or mixed northern forests.  As our climate warms their preferred habitat will be disappear from the eastern U.S.  By 2050 their eastern breeding range will move north into Canada at Hudson Bay.

Listen now to the most beautiful song on earth.


(video of a hermit thrush in Maine by Wild Bird Videos by McElroy Productions on YouTube)

Your Wizard For Identifying Birds

What bird is that? Small brown birds at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Small brown birds at the feeder in Indiana County, PA, early February 2014 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

What bird is that?

There’s a small brown bird at the feeder and there’s no one to help you identify it.

Don’t you wish you had a personal assistant to help you?

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin Bird ID app for Android and iPhone does just that.  Introduced in 2014, the app gets smarter every year.  It uses the simple information you already know — your location, the date and the words “small,” “brown,” and “at the bird feeder” — to narrow your choices and identify the bird.

To Identify a bird, answer 5 questions (screenshot from Merlin Bird ID app)
(screenshot from Merlin Bird ID app, Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

You can even take a picture with your cellphone and ask Merlin what it is.

Merlin’s answer is a list of the most likely suspects with photos, sounds and descriptions.  It even tells you if the bird is uncommon or rare for your date and location.  That’s one of the best clues you’ll find anywhere because an “uncommon” species in March can become “common” in May.

Watch the video below to see how Merlin works, then download the app.

Merlin’s a wizard at identifying birds!


p.s.  What birds are at Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder shown above?  She took the photo in Indiana County, PA, in early February 2014.

(bird photo by Marcy Cunkelman, Merlin Bird ID screenshot and video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Vaudeville Gulls

It’s Vaudeville time with duets of gulls singing and dancing.

Above, two yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) sing in Europe.

Below, European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) dance in Penzance, UK.

Their acts are serious business.  Gulls sing when they’re courting and dance for their dinner.

You’ll hear lots of gulls singing in the months ahead as they enter the breeding season.

But you’ll be lucky if you find a dancing gull.  In Europe gulls stamp on the ground to bring worms to the surface.  I’ve never seen them do it in North America.  Have you?


p.s. I guessed at the identity of the dancing gulls. If you know they’re not herring gulls, please tell me what they are.

(videos from YouTube)

The Falcon’s Laugh

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)
Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

On my trip to Costa Rica I wanted to see a laughing falcon. And then I wanted to hear it.

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) are very vocal birds that live in Central and South America from Mexico to northern Argentina.  They specialize in eating snakes — even poisonous ones — which they kill by biting off the heads.  Ch’ol Maya legend says the birds can cure themselves of snake bites. And yet, the birds sound spooky.

At dusk laughing falcons raise their voices in advertisement calls or duets.  They start with a gwa call, getting louder and louder, that usually morphs into two syllables: gwa co.

One evening before dinner at Las Cruces Biological Station, Bert Dudley filmed this laughing falcon warming up at dusk.  Click here to hear.

The two-syllable call gave the bird its common name, halcón guaco, but those calls don’t sound like laughing.

Here is his laugh:

“Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans)” from xeno-canto by Mario Trejo. Genre: Falconidae.


The falcon only “laughs” when he’s worried or upset.


(photo and video by Bert Dudley)