Archive for the ‘Bird Song’ Category

Bird Songs When Living Alone

November 12, 2010

Galway Kinnell, the poet wrote a series of poems he calls “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone.” Birds, and a pet snake, appear in many of them. In the seventh of the series he writes:

the least flycatcher witching up “che-bec!”

or the red-headed woodpecker clanging out his music

from a metal drainpipe, or a ruffed grouse drumming

“thrump thrump thrump thrump-thrump-


deep in the woods, all of them in time’s unfolding

trying to cry themselves into self-knowing –

one knows one is here to hear them into shining,

when one has lived a long time alone.

I’m not so sure I agree with his implication that the birds lack “self-knowing” but I won’t deny the beauty of the poem or the marvelous descriptions of the bird songs.

And speaking of bird songs, Enature has a fun test for anyone who wants to take it. You type in your zip code and five birds from your region will test your knowledge of their songs. It’s fun.

The Mockingbird Problem

July 7, 2010

We’re back from a birding/fly-fishing trip and will now finally address The Mockingbird Problem. Northern Mockingbirds – and about twenty percent of other passerine songbirds – are mimics. They steal their songs from their environments. Imagine the smartest student in class unnecessarily cheating on tests by going around the room and copying little bits of every other student’s answers.

That makes no sense. Instead of getting an “A” on the test, the student would get an “F” because her answers would be gibberish. Yet mockingbirds – obviously the star students in avian music class – do precisely that. Rather than develop their own unique songs, they just copy bits and pieces of the songs of other species.


Wouldn’t it be easier and less costly to invent their own songs and pass those down to their offspring? Less brain power would be required and learning would be simpler. Besides, the mockingbird isn’t fooling any other birds. They all recognize that the mockingbird isn’t one of them.

Nobody knows. We think we know that they sing for the same reasons as other birds: the males are seeking, stimulating, and keeping mates and they are competing with one another for mates and territories. But no one knows why they evolved singing songs of other birds. The same question can be asked about other mimics such as Common Starlings, Marsh Warblers, Australian Lyrebirds, bowerbirds, scrubbirds, and African Robin-chats.

Chihuahan Desert Mockingbird Locale (Otero Mesa)

We’ve learned a lot about Mockingbird song in the last century though. We know, for instance, that both males and females sing, although females sing only in the summer and only when their mate is off their territory. The males sing most in Spring, less in summer, still less in Autumn and hardly at all in winter. Unmated males sing more than mated males and will, in spring, sing all night long. (I’ve camped on the Chihuahuan Desert and listened to one sing all night long. That mockingbird may have been lonely, but he provided me with one of my favorite backpacking memories.) Unmated males sing in all directions, while mated males tend to sing inward toward their own territories.

Darwin's Mockingbirds

The males possess two entirely different repertoires, one for the spring and another for autumn. One had 203 songs in his mind. Somewhere between 90 and 150 seems about average. They continue to learn new songs for as long as they live. Older birds have larger repertoires than younger ones. Males with the most varied songs may get the largest territories. They may also mate earlier. And they sing all the time during breeding season, warbling away while copulating, eating, and foraging.

And probably they sing silently while dreaming. We know that Zebra Finches dream in song; no reason to suspect a bird that devotes as much of its cranial capacity to learning and remembering complex songs wouldn’t also dream in song.

They sing more during full moons.


For more on Northern Mockingbird song see:

Derrickson, K. C. and R. Breitwisch. 1992. Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

doi:10.2173/bna.7 (Subscription Required)

Frank Gill, Ornithology (3rd ed.), pp 230-231 and 237.

For a sample song, try this:

The photo of the Northern Mockingbird at the top is by Manjithkaina, used via a Creative Commons license.

Why Do Birds Sing?

June 21, 2010

The short answer is, they sing to live. But that doesn’t tell us much. It is not a testable hypothesis and is at too high a level of generalization to be helpful.

And before we go any further, we pause to note that we are talking about bird song today, not bird calls. Calls are the comparatively simpler sounds made by birds to stay in contact with one another, to call for mobbing behavior, or to sound alarms. (Alarm calls, by the way, tend to be high-pitched calls which make the source of the sound harder for a predator to find.) Today we are talking about the more complex, difficult, and – to our ears, anyway – melodious songs of the passerines and other birds that sing.

Birds produce song by forcing air through the syrinx, a bony structure at the bottom of the trachea. The syrinx resonates sound waves generated by the vibrating membranes of the syrinx. Changing the force of the air controls volume while pitch is controlled by both the force of the air and the muscular tension applied to the membranes. Some birds can even produce two separate notes at the same instant because they can control both sides of the syrinx independently.

The two leading bird-song hypotheses of our time are that male birds sing to attract mates and to establish and protect territories. Those hypotheses are at least testable, have been tested, and look to be correct – as far as they go.

But even they don’t get at the root of the question. Bird song evolved along with birds. As far as we know, the dinosaurs from which birds evolved didn’t sing. (Maybe that’s the reason they died out! Nothing to do with volcanoes in Asia or a meteor strike in the Yucatán: They couldn’t sing! Of course, neither can I, so I am not fond of my new hypothesis about dinosaur extinction. If true, it doesn’t bode well for my continued survival nor that of my children, who can’t sing either.) The first dinosaur-birds probably didn’t sing and certainly did not have the highly developed language of many current bird species.

But at some point we must assume the male birds that croaked out rudimentary songs had a sexual advantage over their competitors who hadn’t figured out anything more than avian karaoke. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be singing today

Said differently, why weren’t the ordinary, simpler, and easier-to-learn bird calls enough?

For that matter, why did the males of so many species develop their brilliant colors? That too takes more evolutionary effort than dull and drab. Moreover, brilliantly colored birds are easier for those predators which have color vision to spot. The same is true for song. A robin singing away in pre-dawn light is easier for a predator to find than if the robin was emitting only an occasional high-pitched call. Why does the robin take the risk? Natural selection, after all, destroys without fear or favor. Why is a noisy robin more likely to pass along his genes than one sitting quietly hidden two feet away?

The possibility exists that beauty plays a role. Maybe the bird that sings most beautifully is the one most likely to breed in spite of the danger? For those of you with a scientific/materialistic frame of mind, nothing excludes such a possibility: Beauty may be adaptive. How else to explain the Elegant Trogan? For those readers of a more spiritual/religious framework, why would beauty not be a survival requirement? How else to explain the Elegant Trogan?

But before we can go further we have to deal with “The Mockingbird Problem.” We’ll be back next time to discuss mockingbirds and their songs.


The photo of the fossil dromaeosaur  at the American Museum of Natural History in New York was taken by Dinoguy2.

Beverly Hills Declares War on Birds

November 25, 2009

Beverly Hills, home to generations of movie stars and other rich people, has declared war on songbirds. It may be part of a broader conspiracy. San Francisco, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Los Angeles have piled on.

Woe betide anyone Beverly Hills or those other California towns who dares declaw a cat!  All those places have just passed city ordinances outlawing the declawing of cats.

From what I’ve read about the fearsome debate in California, which apparently revolves around a political dispute between local communities and the state veterinarian association, not one word has been raised in defense of song birds, the leading victims of those claws.

That’s not fair. If you are at risk of death from a cat’s claws, shouldn’t you at least get your own spokesman? I realize it’s Hollywood, so maybe the birds aren’t entitled to a lawyer, but surely a publicist at least? Or somebody from PETA?  (Well, maybe not PETA. I see that the president of PETA now demands that we call fish “sea kitties,” so I suspect that PETA may have a bias in favor of cats and a prejudice against birds, the largest population of wild animals on earth.)

We’ve written before about the songbird death rate caused by both pet and feral cats.  Let us hasten to add that, of all the options available to ease that slaughter, declawing your pet cats should be a last resort.  Far better to keep your cat indoors — with a scratching post — where coyotes, owls, cars, dogs, and other cat predators can’t get at them. Indoor cats live longer, healthier, warmer, and happier lives. Here are some other ideas.

And why doesn’t someone invent a way to simply cover cat claws with some kind of padding? Ballet dancers have them for their toes.

Birds used to have claws themselves, like this. No cat would mess with a bird like that.

The downside of criminalizing cat declawing is that people who want to keep their cats indoors may decide that protecting their nice furniture — and we assume the denizens of Beverly Hills have very nice furniture — from the claws of their pets is more important than keeping the cat indoors. Being law abiding citizens they will then condemn their pets to an outdoor life and their pets will set about killing wild birds.

Of course, this may be nothing more than a ploy by those California communities to pander to the cat tourism industry.  Big business, cat tourism.  People are always driving half-way across the continent or flying half-way round the world just to get a fleeting glimpse of a stranger’s pet cat.  Not at all like birders, who hardly ever go anywhere in search of birds. Cat tourists leave no stone unturned in the quest to see just one more pet cat.

But at least now we know the reason why, when you look at lists of the best places to go birding in the world, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are not on the list.

NBC and the Los Angeles Times reported the news about the ordinances, as did the Huffington Post. The quote from the PETA president came from this.

Don’t forget to be a great citizen and shop at The Fat Finch this weekend.

The Song of a Canyon Wren

August 31, 2009

Here is a part of one of the nicest poems about bird song you’ll ever read, written by that Sage of Nature, Gary Snyder.  This is why we listen to birds.

Canyon Wren by Joan Mayer, NPS

Canyon Wren by Joan Mayer, NPS

The Canyon Wren

I look up at the cliffs
But we’re swept on by                   downriver
the rafts
Wobble and slide over roils of water
boulders shimmer
under the arching stream
Rock walls straight up on both sides.
A hawk cuts across that narrow sky
hit by the sun,

We paddle forward, backstroke, turn,
Spinning through eddies and waves
Stairsteps of churning whitewater.
above the roar
hear the song of a Canyon Wren.

A smooth stretch, drifting and resting.
Hear it again, delicate downward song
Descending through ancient beds. . . .

These songs that are here and gone,
Here and gone,
To purify our ears.
Here is a link so you too can listen, at least, to a recording.  May it inspire you to get out there and hear one for yourself.


July 17, 2009

Western Meadowlark -US FWS Photo by J. and K. Hollingsworth

Western Meadowlark -US FWS Photo by J. and K. Hollingsworth

One of my favorite images of our small, beautiful world is of morning’s first light sweeping around the globe, continuously, relentlessly, forever circling and returning to repeat the cycle.  Always, somewhere, it is dawn, and always, somewhere, the birds are singing.

Don Kroodsma – author of The Singing Life of Birds

Interspecies Symphony

June 28, 2009

We haven’t forgotten you and will be back later this week.  In the meantime, the birds of our yard all seem to have fledglings and they are eating us out of house and home.

And, as you can see, no interspecies rivalries are allowed to interfere with feeding time.  This particular symphony began with a grosbeak playing the melody, the House Finches doing harmony, and the goldfinches on the flutes.

bird symphony (1 of 4)

Not for nothing are they called grosbeaks.

bird symphony (2 of 4)

The grosbeak was soon replaced by the Ladderback Woodpecker and the White-wing Dove.

bird symphony (4 of 4)

The Ladderback came back for a curtain call.  (The Hummingbirds were supposed to be playing the trumpets in the background but they were on strike at the time.)

bird symphony (3 of 4)


June 16, 2009


City of Mudville, California v. The Great-tailed Grackle

[June 16, 2009]

JUSTICE SOOTHER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The town of Mudville, California, allows its citizens to bring private law suits to stop public nuisances.  The municipal ordinance defines a public nuisance as “Anything which is . . . indecent or offensive to the senses.”  The nuisance must, “Affect at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons.”

Mildred Thoroughgood brought this lawsuit, demanding that the authorities of Mudville do something about the Great-tailed Grackles which live there.  The grackles, Ms. Thoroughgood claims, are “offensive to the senses” and must be eradicated.  A judge in Mudville agreed with her and ordered the birds extirpated.
grackle (2 of 3)
The birds appeal, asking this Court to reverse the judgment below and dismiss the case.

Great-tailed Grackles are large birds with, as the name implies, large tails.  They live mainly west of the Mississippi River of the United States and often dwell together in large flocks, not unlike humans.  Foraging for seeds and insects, they go about making their living in fields and towns throughout the American Southwest and Southern California.

But, according to Ms. Thoroughgood, they make many unpleasant sounds.  Indeed one authority writes, “Song a series of loud, unpleasant noises: mechanical rattles, sliding tinny whistles, harsh rustling sounds, and sharp hard notes.”  (Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, at 443)

No evidence to the contrary appearing, this Court accepts as fact that they make unpleasant sounds. We also note that even the renowned Cornell University refers to the poor birds as a “pest species.”

If that were all the evidence, we might be inclined to uphold the decision of the Mudville court that grackles are a pain and should be eliminated.  But that was not all the evidence.

grackle (3 of 3)
The grackle population appears to grow with the human population.  This makes Great-tailed Grackles, like pigeons, an inevitable by-product of the rapid growth of the American West.   Like people, grackles find irrigation and urbanization beneficial. The only way to get rid of them is to get rid of the people.

Grackles are good parents too.  Most of the parental duties, it is true, are left to the females but males fiercely defend their nestlings and fledglings.  Interestingly, more females survive the first year than males.  That may explain the transient nature of their pair bonds and the flamboyant mating behavior of the males.  Nobody knows for certain how long they live, but one banded male lived for twelve years.

Finally, we find the testimony at trial of The Fat Finch persuasive.  Those people have a female Great-tailed Grackle living in their yard which has lost a leg.  This one-legged female is successfully rearing offspring.  The fledglings don’t seem to care that she has only one leg and neither does she.  Such tenacity in the face of adversity should be rewarded, not punished.

One-legged Grackle

One-legged Grackle

The law of nuisance, as William Prosser once wrote, is an “impenetrable jungle.”  Nonetheless, we discern in this case application of that old legal maxim, “The law disregards grackles.”

Accordingly, we reverse the decision below and order the case dismissed.  Let the grackles go.

JUSTICE SCALITO, dissenting.

I hate nature.  I never go outside if I can avoid it.  I used to play tennis outdoors but found the unfiltered air disagreeable.  Moreover, I’ve never been west of the Mississippi and don’t intend to go.  Therefore, I am completely disinterested in the fate of Great-tailed Grackles.

But, because I hate nature and grackles are a part of nature, I hate grackles.  If the government wants to eradicate them I find nothing in my copy of the Constitution preventing it.

I dissent.

Owl Identification

April 8, 2009
Barn Owls Painted by Audubon

Barn Owls Painted by Audubon

Beings of only five senses, we are probably surrounded by realities of which we are utterly unaware.

Our evolution has enhanced some of our senses, dulled others, and made some unnecessary.  Dogs, if they were capable of derision, would laugh at our pathetic ability to smell; a falcon would wonder how we can exist as blind as we are; an owl could never imagine a being with such poor hearing; and these are animals who, so far as we can tell, have the same basic five senses we possess.

What more must be happening out there, all around us, of which we know nothing?

Even if we assume that it is nothing but a material universe and that no supernatural power is at work in it, gigantic amounts of reality must be completely unavailable to us.  Literally unimaginable.

The best thing that can be said about our dim perceptions is that they are all we’ve needed to survive.  You can think of our senses as  reducing valves, removing all non-essential information.  A being overloaded with information, unable to sift through it all quickly, would be destined for evolution’s trash bin. Like owls, we constantly survey our environment searching for what we need and watching for danger.

Actual Unretouched Photo of Owl Hunting

Actual Unretouched Photo of an Owl Hunting

Because we are so sense-limited, birders long ago developed the rule that if you can’t see the bird, but hear it and can identify the song, you get to add the bird to your life list.

Which is a good thing when it comes to owls.

Superbly adapted to night, and supremely camouflaged for daytime sleep, owls are more often heard than seen.

To identify owls you must become familiar with the night.  You must dress warmly, sit quietly, be patient, and listen.  And you must be in the right place. Owls are not overly fond of our cities, although you will find them there.  But it is best to get outdoors   into forests and fields and deserts and mountains if you want to meet owls.  Unplowed fields, unlogged forests, unpeopled deserts are the best places to go.

You must take some trouble to get to them but once you do, it is magic when you hear an owl calling in the night.  If you’ve been very still, very quiet, perhaps you have heard the owl’s prey too, scuttling across the canyon’s floor or rustling dead leaves on the forest floor.  Hearing that owl call must strike terror into the small mammals which feed at night and are fed on by the owls. As we discuss in our post about Halloween and Barn Owls, not much sound escapes the acute hearing of an owl.  Their faces and ears magnify and funnel sounds inaudible to us into a superb navigation system that allows them to fly and hunt in the dead of night.

Another Owl Hunting Photo (Or Maybe this is the one of the Balck Hole?)

Another Owl Hunting Photo (Or Maybe this is the one of the Black Hole?)

One can’t describe sounds in words any more than a smell can be explained in words.  No substitute exists for the actual sound waves striking your eardrums and transmitted to your brain.  Cornell University publishes a 2 CD set of the 19 owl species commonly found in North America.  We suggest you buy it — or some other compendium of owl calls — and listen to it before going out on your night time search.  In fact, take the CDs with you and listen to them in headphones while you wait.  You will then have the sounds immediately available if you hear an ambiguous call.  Or an ambiguous owl.


The CD is Voices of North American Owls, ISBN 0-938027-66-2, and sells for $30.00.  We have it in our physical store at 505.898.8900 and online.  We have a tape which we like entitled Hoots, Toots, Calls, Clicks and Hisses which was published by the Owl Research Insititute in 2002 and available here and at our store.

To listen to recordings of Barn Owls go to and type Barn Owl into the search box and then click on the audio or the video clips and listen to your heart’s content.  Try to describe the call in words and we’ll add your descriptions to the comments section below.

The earlier posts in our owl series are here and here.


April 19, 2008

Spring arrived in our little corner of the universe this week. After several days of plodding through the paperwork of tax time here in the U.S. we were ready to get outside for awhile and the weather cooperated.

Our yard has become home to two species of birds which did not join us last year. Two Red wing Blackbirds and four Inca Doves have joined the menagerie, at least for now. “Now” is a key word when one spends anytime observing birds or nature. Nature, by nature — if you will forgive the pun — is not controllable by us. Those Red winged Blackbirds which are here today, may be gone tomorrow. Some or all of the little Incas may spend the summer or move on. Grasping at the hope they will stay will not keep them here any longer than they choose to be here. All that can possibly be done is enjoy them while they choose to stay.

And enjoying Red wing Blackbirds is not a difficult thing to do. Here is a brief video of a male calling. Blackbirds tend to flock and, in our experience anyway, enjoy large fields which we do not have around the house. Since we have never had any here, we lack confidence they will stay but are hopeful. And, for “now” we have them and their song.

What is more, on April 16th, the day after we paid our American dues, the first hummingbird of the year arrived. It is a Black chinned Hummingbird and currently has six feeders all to itself. Now there is a bird which is enjoying its “now.” Soon it will be sharing with many more hummingbirds and we’ll get back to our pseudo-science of trying to count them all. (You can read about methods of counting hummingbirds here, here and here.)

But, for now, it is “now” in our yard and it is good.

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