Category Archives: Vocalizations

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 and try it for yourself.

screenshot of Merlin Sound ID from

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; 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)