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Home & Garden: Bird songs

Larry Collins
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

As I mentioned in my last column, birds draw on a variety of sounds to communicate.

Typical sounds fall into two main groups: relatively long and elaborate songs, used to impress and attract a mate or declare territorial boundaries; and briefer calls, typically used to identify family members, announce the presence of a predator, or convey information about food.

This week I want to talk about bird songs.



A Red-eyed Vireo sings more than 20,000 songs a day. A Pileated Woodpecker drums on a tree at 15 beats per second. A Wilson’s Snipe dives through the air, the feathers on its wings vibrating to produce a winnowing sound, hu-hu-hu…

Why? Birds put a lot of effort into singing, drumming, winnowing, and otherwise making a prominent exhibition. They do this to impress mates and proclaim territories.



How does a duckling know how to quack like a duck, or even which duck to quack like? Different species learn in surprisingly different ways — some know their songs at birth, some require tutoring; others learn their songs and then improvise to build their repertoires; and still others, like the mockingbird, copy nearly anything they hear into songs with hundreds or thousands of variations.

Songs are often loud and repetitive, so they tend to be noticed more than other bird sounds. Birds may sing their songs thousands of times throughout the day. Dickcissels may spend as much as 70 percent of the day singing while establishing territories and courting females.

Some birds have large repertoires of songs. The Brown Thrasher can sing as many as 2,000 distinct songs. Other species, such as the Henslow’s Sparrow, seem to have only one song. In North America, we hear mostly males singing, because they typically take the lead in defending territories and attracting mates. However, especially in the tropics, some species sing duets involving both the male and female.

Experiments with recorded songs have shown that birds sing to attract mates. For example, House Wren songs broadcast near nest boxes will attract female House Wrens. Female birds may also judge the quality of a male’s song when selecting a mate. Some studies have shown that males with extra food in their territories are the most persistent singers, and in some species the most persistent singers attract females the soonest.

Playback experiments have also shown that songs are important in defending a territory. For example, male House Wrens respond aggressively to the recording of another male’s song, sometimes even attacking the loudspeaker. In other tests, researchers temporarily removed male birds from their territories but played songs through speakers on some of the territories. Neighboring males were less likely to invade territories from which songs were broadcast, showing that song means “Keep out!” to other birds.

Although most birds sing with their voices, others use their bills or wings to drum up a mate’s interest. A woodpecker drums on a tree or our houses to produce a “song” that other members of the same species recognize. Woodpeckers often select dry branches, hollow logs, or other materials that provide maximum volume for their drumming. Like songs, drumming is used in courtship and to declare a territory.

The next time you hear a bird singing, see if you can determine whether it is a song or a call. Also, try to determine the species of bird. The latter can be a real challenge!

Speaking of bird identification, information overload is the bane of the bird watcher — as anyone knows who has ever flipped through 40 species of sparrows in a field guide.

What if an app could quickly tell you which birds are most likely options based on your location, season, and a brief description? Not just which birds theoretically could occur near you; but, which birds are actually reported most often by other birders? That’s what Merlin Bird ID does. And it’s free — because Cornell Lab of Ornithology wants to make bird watching easier for everyone.

Merlin Bird ID covers 285 of the most common birds of North America (with more on the way). In addition to help with ID, it contains expert tips, more than 1,400 gorgeous photos, and sounds for each species. It is available now for iPhone and other iOS7 devices (like tablets), and it’s coming soon for Android.

Get more details at the Merlin website, http://www.merlin.allaboutbirds.org, where Android users can sign up for notification when it’s ready.

Thanks again to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for some of the information in this column.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to lcollins1@bresnan.net and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.


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