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Who’s Singing?

The Mamas and the Papas of the bird world

The song of the Carolina wren, left, sounds like tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle, while the mockingbird, above, mimics the song of other birds. <<photos © by Dotty Holcomb Doherty>>

No one said being a mother was easy. Being a mother bird takes this challenge to a whole new level. In February, on the Eastern Shore, a mother eagle sat in her nest covering her eggs even as a snowstorm covered her. Last summer, in my back yard, a mother cardinal laid three batches of eggs. Her first and third hatchlings fledged and survived, her second pair did not: They were eaten in the middle of the night. Right now, in early May, all around our woodland edges, mother cowbirds are laying eggs — sometimes three dozen each — but not in nests made by them or their mates. Instead, these mamas deposit their eggs in other species’ nests and rely on foster care.
    American robins will recognize the cowbird eggs and toss them out. A yellow warbler mother also can recognize these egg-interlopers, but her tiny bill is too small to toss the eggs. Instead, she will build another nest — sometimes four layers deep on top of the cowbird eggs — and her own — and keep starting over. Most species do not have this intuition, however, and end up raising the often-larger cowbird babies to the detriment of their own.
    Raccoons, snakes, deer, crows: These are just a handful of the predators of eggs and nestlings. Then there are downpours and wind that can drown or blow over a nest. If the young survive all this and fledge, they face the rigors of migration.
    What is a mother to do?
    For most species, not much. Our osprey moms leave town for the tropics before their young have even gotten the hang of catching their own fish. For songbirds, once the first brood has fledged and been fed for a few days, the mamas have moved on to prepare for the next set. Giving those babies good genes and a good start is key. So first, mother must find a good mate.

Picking Somebody Groovy
    Bird moms are very selective in choosing mates. A male must show off his colorful plumage in courtship displays, plus demonstrate his ability to make a good nest and bring her food. If he impresses her with his fancy footwork, flying and singing, he must fend off other males who might want to intrude on his woman (or women, in the case of the red-winged blackbird, for example) and his territory.
    Thus our spring mornings become a cacophony of song. Each resident and migrant male regales the day from his own playlist, sending messages of love and turf.
    But who’s singing? If you want to tune into this Pandora station of birdsong, here’s how.

Who’s Singing Those Words of Love
    Step out your door and listen. Follow one sound and observe the singer. Perhaps it’s the northern cardinal, decked in crimson with his square black facemask. He starts singing early, often at 4am, as do American robins, and continues throughout the day.

Like sheet music, a sonogram of a bird’s song is a visual graph. Note the cardinal’s two-section song, beginning with the up-slurring sweet sweet, followed by the ­rapidly repeated whit whit … 16 times!

    Both male and female cardinals sing, often in duet, as she responds in kind to his loud sweet sweet whit whit whit whit whit. Unlike us, birds have two voice boxes and switch from left to right to produce their brilliant slurring phrases. As you listen, note the quality of the sound. Cardinals sing a wide variety of songs, but their tone lets you know it’s all them.
    Perhaps you’ll hear the rollicking song of the robin, or the tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle of a Carolina wren. The northern mockingbird, true to his name, mimics others’ tunes.
    Listen to the quality of the song. Is it clear, buzzy or trilling? Does the pitch rise, fall, stay steady or vary? How many sections are there to the song? Does it begin with one phrase, then switch to another? These are all clues that help you distinguish and learn one species’ song from another’s.
    Sonograms, like bird song sheet music but more precise, are visual graphs that show the frequency and length of songs. Note the cardinal sonogram, depicting its two-section song, beginning with the up-slurring sweet sweet, followed by the rapidly repeated whit whit … 16 times! Find more by googling sonogram of and then the bird’s name. Here’s a wonderful array of the cardinal’s repertoire: https://math.uc.edu/~pelikan/Dora/AllNoCa/NoCaSummary.html
    All this can seem complex, but there’s an easy way to learn birds’ songs and remember them.

Some Free Advice
    To help a bird’s song stick in your brain, try to imagine an image to go with the sound. Is the cardinal singing his pretty pretty pretty or his cheer cheer cheer song? Imagine him a rather vain gentleman, getting all dressed up to sing in the opera, putting on his red jacket and looking so closely in the mirror that it gets stuck on his face (the black square). Silly? Yes. But that’s the beauty of Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s revolutionary method. Stephenson and Whittle have published a new book, The Warbler Guide, and offered a workshop on identifying birds by song at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in April.
    “Create a vivid image that will remind you of the bird’s song,” Stephenson said. “Try to connect the image with the bird’s name.” Like the cardinal-red jacket of our vain opera singer, who finds himself so pretty he wants us to cheer.
    What about the cardinal’s sweet sweet whit whit whit song? Is he laughing at his own wit? “Each person should come up with their own image,” Stephenson reminded us. “Create a picture that you will remember.”
    “The crazier and more dramatic the better,” added Whittle.
    Perhaps for the rollicking fluty song of the robin, you’d imagine him as a rockin’ robin band member spiraling the end of his flute in wild curlicues. Getting the robin song down will help you recognize another summer beauty — the scarlet tanager — whose song is likened to a robin with a sore throat. Another snazzy migrant, the rose-breasted grosbeak, also sings a robin-like song, but with a sweet cheeriness.
    Use words, sonograms and the bird’s colors to create an unforgettable image linked to the bird’s name. “The more you do this,” Stephenson promised, “the better you’ll get at it.” The key is to practice. Pick a song and listen to it online at allaboutbirds.com. Download a birdsong CD and make playlists of five birds at a time. Learn them, and move on to another five. Or simply walk out the door and listen each morning until you recognize cardinal and a couple others. Then add a couple more. If you can, go out with an experienced birder who can identify even more songs.
    This morning, I listened as a male cardinal sang pretty pretty pretty, to which his nesting female replied, whit whit whit. Or perhaps it was quit quit quit — as in, “Enough with the singing! I am stuck sitting on these eggs. Bring me some food!”


Digital Bird Songs

All About Birds: ­Listen to bird songs, look at photos and videos and learn the basics of birding: allaboutbirds.org.

Merlin Bird ID App: Free, Apple and Android. Covers 400 species of birds; helps beginners identify a bird by locale, size and color. Includes photos, songs and information.

Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America App: $19.99, iPhone, iPad; Android; Kindle Fire; Windows Phone 7; Blackberry. Considered the best eGuide around, Sibley’s offers 6,600 images of 810 species, range maps for each, 2,300 songs and calls and much more. A must for beginners as well as seasoned birders who want an excellent field guide app.

The Warbler Guide: More about Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s method for memorizing bird songs (click on Articles), plus information on their book, app, and Song and Call Companion: ­thewarblerguide.com.

The Warbler Guide App: $12.99, iPhone. Stephenson and Whittle’s tour de force app brings their innovative method of identifying warblers to the intermediate and experienced birder. Photos of warblers from every angle, including a 360-degree rotatable view, plus comparison species. Includes each warbler’s variety of songs, accompanied by sonograms and — to avoid confusion — the similar songs of other warblers.


Bird Clubs

Bird clubs welcome new members, and skilled birders enjoy teaching identification and songs. Their websites offer field trips and programs, plus birding hotspots and checklists of birds you might see in different seasons.

Maryland Ornithological Society MOS: mdbirds.org; Youth Division ymos.org

Anne Arundel Bird Club: Covers both Anne Arundel and Calvert: aabirdclub.org

Audubon Maryland-DC: Covers Anne ­Arundel County: md.audubon.org

Southern Maryland Audubon Society: ­Covers Calvert County: somdaudubon.org

Thank you for making our beautiful birds the focal point of this issue! I keep various feeders along with 2 bird baths in our yard year round. Birds add so much joy to my life. I love their singing and they way they care for their partners and young. I am really looking forward to seeing the fledglings come to the feeders. They are so sweet and the parents are incredibly protective and nurturing. The rewards are great.

Please encourage your readers to consider adding a bird bath to their landscape. Watching them frolic in the water, taking turns, is the cutest thing. And during these dry spells, I get many different birds that don't normally visit. My yard is the most popular in the neighborhood. You can hear the singing from the yard WELL before you get to my home.

Beautiful.