Category Archives: Vocalizations

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)

Who’s Singing Now?

The birds are singing again and our ears are “rusty” after six months of their silence. How can we identify them?

Here are YouTube videos for four species singing in my Pittsburgh neighborhood this morning.  Perhaps they’re in your neighborhood, too.

  • Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) get back in tune very early in the year.  They’re resident throughout much of North America so they begin practicing in January.  By now they’re doing the territorial call-and-response in Pittsburgh.  In the video above, you can hear a song sparrow off camera before the one in view responds.
  • Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are LOUD.  Resident in the eastern U.S., their song is described as “TEAkettle, TEAkettle, TEAkettle” but it doesn’t always sound like that.  Often the best clue to identifying this wren is that it’s the loudest voice you hear.  Watch him sing below, then look for your local wren on a prominent perch.  You’ll be surprised by how far away he is.


  • House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were originally from the western U.S. and Mexico but bird sellers illegally captured and sold them as “Hollywood Finches” in New York City.  In 1940, with law enforcement in pursuit, the dealers released their birds in Central Park.  Since then, the eastern population has expanded westward, nearly meeting up with their western relatives. You probably have one singing in your neighborhood.  Listen to him below.


  • The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) “whoooing” song is sometimes mistaken for an owl but when you look for the source you’ll find this bird puffing his throat. Mourning doves are tuning up near you.  They’re resident in most of the U.S. and Mexico.


(videos from YouTube. Click on the “Watch on YouTube” icon to see each video with explanatory text)

Monkeys And Macaws

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’ll be birding at Carara National Park on the Pacific Coast where I expect to see monkeys and the park’s most famous bird, the scarlet macaw.

Encountering monkeys in the wild is a new experience for me.  Because we humans are the only primates who live outside subtropical zones most of us only see primates in captivity.

At Carara we’re likely to see white-headed capuchins (Cebus capucinus), shown above. These diurnal monkeys are highly intelligent and very social, living in troops of about 16 individuals that are mostly female kin because the males move around.  White-headed capuchins love to use tools and are so smart that they can be trained in captivity to assist paraplegics.

If we hear an otherworldly roar like a dinosaur, it’ll be a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata).  The howlers roar both day and night but can be hard to find.

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to hear the howl while a woman searches for the source. Perhaps they “sound like dinosaurs” because the foley editors used howler voices in Jurassic Park.


Today’s highlight, though, will be the beautiful wild scarlet macaws (Ara macao).

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These huge members of the parrot family have a wide range — from Central to South America — but they need a lot of territory that’s remote from humans in order to survive.  Carara provides that space.

I hope to see scarlet macaws flying, as in the photo below.  I’ve seen green-winged macaws (Ara chloropterus) in free flight at the National Aviary but seeing scarlets — and in the wild — will be a real treat.

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


And for those of you who love reptiles, there’s a bonus.  Carara National Park has American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).  No, they are not alligators. Click here to see.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 3: Carara National Park

Cheeps Like A Bird

The birds aren’t singing and many aren’t even making contact calls but you’ll still hear something in the forest that sounds like a bird.

Listen to the video above as a chipmunk makes chirpy calls that resemble a northern cardinal — except that they’re too fast and “sweet.”

Chipmunks make sounds we don’t expect from such a small body.  Lang Elliott recorded three of them:  “chip”, “tock” and squeak.  Click here to hear.

Want to know what they mean? Jim McCormac explains them in Deciphering the language of chipmunks.

You’ll get a lot of practice with these sounds in the weeks ahead.  The chipmunks are in overdrive and very vocal, storing up food for the winter.


(video by PAphotofun on YouTube. Chipmunk audio by Lang Elliott via Wildlife of Connecticut website)

Babies, It’s Hot Outside

Screenshot from Science video about zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)
Screenshot from Science Magazine video on zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)

Bird news from last week, in case you missed it …

Many birds talk to their eggs and there’s evidence that the eggs hear and respond.  For instance, superb fairywrens sing to their eggs and before they hatch the babies sing back!

Now scientists at Deakin University in Australia have discovered that in zebra finches what the eggs hear and how they respond is even more amazing than we knew.

In the last days of incubation, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) sing a special song to their eggs but only when it’s hot outside — greater than 26 degrees C (78.8 degrees F).

The eggs hear the song and it changes their lives.

After they hatch, babies who heard the “hot call” grow more slowly than those who didn’t.  Not only are the “hot call” babies smaller as adults but they’re more successful breeders in a hot climate.  Surprisingly, this effect extends into later generations.

Small bodies cope better with heat than large ones, so signalling for a smaller size is a great adaptation for a warming climate.

But how does the zebra finch song bring about this result?

Click here to watch the video and read about this amazing feat.


(screenshot from Science Magazine video about zebra finch vocalization. Click on the screenshot to see the video)