Posts Tagged ‘Bird Song’

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.

The Language of Birds

November 23, 2009

The language of birds is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant and understood.   Gilbert White – English naturalist (1720-1793)

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

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds

December 30, 2007

If you are a Lister, you know that you can count a bird you haven’t actually seen, so long as you can confidently identify it by its song or its call. We’ll have more to say about this in the new year but here, for your New Year’s Eve, is a primer. We tried to hyper-link to the Cornell site for sounds but it kept taking us to the search page. If you want to hear any of these calls, go to the page here and type the species’ name then listen for as long as you have time.

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds


Wouldst thou know the lark?
Then Hark!
Each natural bird
Must be seen and heard.
The lark’s “Tee-ee” is a tinkling entreaty,
But it’s not always “Tee-ee” —
Sometimes it’s “Tee-titi.”
So watch yourself.

Birds have their love-and-mating song,
Their warning cry, their hating song;
A lilt, a tilt, a come-what-may song;
Birds have their careless bough and teeter song
And, of course, their Roger Tory Peter song.


The studious ovenbird (pale pinkish legs)
Calls, “Teacher, teacher, teacher!”
The chestnut-sided warbler begs
To see Miss Beecher.
“I wish to see Miss Beecher.”
(Sometimes interpreted as “Please, please please ta meetcha.)


The redwing (frequents swamps and marshes)
Gurgles, “Konk-la-reeee,”
Eliciting from the wood duck
The exclamation “Jeeee!”
But that’s the male wood duck, remember.
If its his wife you seek,
Wait till you hear a distressed “Who-eek!”


Nothing is simpler than telling a barn owl rom a veery:
One says, “Kschh!” in a voice that is eerie,
The other says, “Vee-ur,” in a manner that is breezy.
(I told you it was easy.)
On the other hand, distinguishing between the veery
And the olive-backed thrush
Is another matter. It couldn’t be worse.
The Thrush’s song is similar to the veery’s,
Only it’s in reverse.


Let us suppose you hear a bird say, “Fitz-bew,”
The things you can be sure of are two:
First, the bird is an alder flycatcher (Empidonax traillii traillii)
Second, you are standing in Ohio — or, as some people call it,
O-hee-O —
Because, although it may come as a surprise to you,
The alder flycatcher, in New York or New England,
does not say, “Fitz-bew,”
It says, “Wee-be-o.”


“Chu-chu-chu” is the note of the harrier,
Copied, of course, from our common carrier.

The osprey, thanks to a lucky fluke,
Avoids “Chu-chu” and cries, “Chewk, chewk!”
So there’s no difficulty there.


The chickadee likes to pronounce his name;
It’s extremely helpful and adds to his fame.
But in spring you can get the heebie-jeebies
Untangling chickadees from phoebes.
The chickadee, when he’s all afire,
Whistles, “Fee-bee,” to express desire.
He should be arrested and thrown into jail
For impersonating another male.
(There’s a way you can tell which bird is which,

But just the same, it’s a nasty switch.)
Our gay deceiver may fancy-free be
But he never does fool a female phoebe.

Oh, sweet the random sounds of birds!
The old-squaw, practicing his thirds;
The distant bittern, driving stakes,
The lonely loon on haunted lakes;
The white-throat’s pure and tenuous thread —
They go to my heart, they go to my head.
How hard it is to find the words
With which to sing the praise of birds!
Yet birds, when they get singing praises,
Don’t lack for words — they know some daisies:
“Onk-a-lik, ow-owdle-ow,”
“Cheedle cheedle chew,”
And dozens of other inspired phrases.

By E. B. White

Happy New Year from the Fat Finch!

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