birdnote q&a: listening to thrushes’ eerie voices

Wood-Thrush-Joanne-KamoTHE DAWN CHORUS is in full voice, but do you know which birds are even singing? In a quest to learn to bird by ear—identifying birds by their song, rather than sight—I’m working on some of the most haunting, distinctive sounds, the ones emanating from various thrush family members in the woods around me. Listen to them, and learn more about birding by ear, with help from my friends at the BirdNote public-radio program. (That’s a wood thrush, above.)

why do birds all sound different?

FIRST: the “why” question: Why are birds’ sounds so different, species to species? I asked Ellen Blackstone, our tour guide in the continuing series with BirdNote (browse all past installments).

As always, the answer is evolution: Songs evolved to match the bird’s habitat, she explained (learn more in this BirdNote segment). Each species adapted over time to succeed in communicating, despite the acoustical obstacles of its environment. Because high-pitched sounds have shorter wavelengths, they are more easily stopped by solid objects, and better sung from tree-tops. Explosive, low-pitched songs bounce better past solid obstacles.

The canyon wren’s song, for example–a series of distinct, long, higher-pitched notes–has ideal acoustics for bouncing off the tall rock faces and boulders of its habitat. Its cousin the marsh wren sings in dense stands of cattails, often from a low perch. That bird’s rapid, choppy, lower-pitched notes carry effectively there; the canyon’s wren’s style of singing would not, um, fly there. Listen to them both.

Joanne Kamo bluebird and robin

listening to thrushes

THOUGH they are technically thrushes, the Eastern bluebird and American robin have voices that are familiar to me, and I regularly see each bird in the garden, often year-round. But knowing their songs—the “cheery” sound the robin makes, or the bluebird’s burbling, as BirdNote calls it—didn’t help me much in identifying the other local thrushes, including the veery, wood thrush and hermit thrush.

Joanne Kamo hermit thrush wood thrushI have seen these birds, but never knew that certain striking songs I hear regularly—from ethereal to flute-like—were theirs. (Left to right: hermit thrush and wood thrush, above.)

Farther north and in some Western states, a Swainson’s thrush song might also be one I’d be trying to identify. The Swainson’s spirals upward, while the veery’s tends downward in pitch. The hermit thrush sings ethereal, paired phrases, long flute-like notes backed by complex, reedy phrases, says BirdNote. (Left to right: Veery and Swainson’s thrush, below.)

Joanne Kamo veery and swainsons thrushCornell describes the wood thrush’s song as ee-oh-lay; listen.

It’s different from the upward-spiraling Swainson’s, or the veery’s (often called “reedy,” and “ethereal,” with a cascading “veer” sound) and the hermit thrush (described as “haunting”): Listen to these three brown thrushes.

Oh, and then there is the thrush-lookalike ovenbird and Louisiana water thrush (both of which live in my area). But wait: Appearance and the one common name notwithstanding, those two aren’t thrushes at all, but warblers—and I haven’t dared try to learn to ID warblers by their voices yet.

What bird voices can you identify? Learned any new ones this year?

more on birding by ear

how to get birdnote

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

(All photos courtesy of BirdNote, and copyright Joanne Kamo; used with permission.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Rebecca Davis says:

    I love your June chore list etc, etc, and I do love to hear the sounds of different birds, and am amazed at the variety in each species and the reasons behind the calls! I have a wonderful book put out by the Stokes with a detailed description of each bird and then they make available the CD to learn what those calls are. I have learned one thing, I will never, ever grasp all the calls and recognize every chirp in my backyard. But I do enjoy trying to learn some. How could this have been done by evolution What is evolution? Something that has evolved( or changed) from something. I want to know where the original something it evolved from, came from. Ellen Blackstone says the reason all the species have so many calls is evolution. I say it is a creative God who for His glory and our pleasure, He made such a wonderful, beautiful, amazing creation. Makes so much more sense to me and so much easier to grasp than to understand things evolving from other things whose origin no one can explain.

  2. Tins says:

    I always loved this haunting little four note minor keyed song I have heard since childhood. Thanks to bird notes I finally found out it was the little chickadee that I had only associated with their scolding “chick-a-dee dee dee” call. And thanks to “Birds of Ohio”. I found out I live on the edge of the black capped and Carolina chick-a-dees. One signs the 4 note song, one sings just the first two notes. And no, I can’t visually tell the difference between the two.

    1. margaret says:

      I can’t tell either, Jen! But yes, the birds have multiple sounds, making the learning all the more complex.

  3. Lace Faerie says:

    Swainson’s Thrush songs are the sound of nightfall to me here in the Pacific Northwest! I hear them from the wooded areas with their ascending song. I have always pictured in my mind’s eye a small bird belting out his song and seen the notes in a tight spiral, a spiral column of notes, reaching higher & higher between the tall columns of the trees.

  4. ellen says:

    I recognize most of the calls from the birds that visit me, but one thing that puzzles me is why I don’t hear the crows in the dawn chorus. Are they silent? Singing a different song for morning? Down at the pond for breakfast?

  5. Kathy D. says:

    Thank you for the introduction to BirdNote. I will be following the show now.

    Two years ago I moved to Ohio from the western United States. Wow, what a change in bird species! I realized I only recognized a few birds by sight, and even fewer by sound. The call of a bird is often what attracts my attention when I’m outside.

    Hearing the hoarse “mew” of the cat bird helped me identify it for the first time. One night a loud call off of my deck made me wonder what creature was out there – whip-poor-will, as it turned out. Then there was the tree frog masquerading as a bird. Mother nature enjoys a joke now and then!

  6. Susan O'Donnell says:

    Thanks for the links! One of my favorites is the call of the Barred Owl very early in the morning in Spring and Summer. “Who Cooks for youu-Who Cooks for youu-ah?”
    After hearing a similar response from its mate I know all is right with the world, or at least in the woods across the street from my house.

    1. margaret says:

      He hoots his “who cooks for you?” here, too, Susan; a welcome voice indeed. Thanks for saying hello.

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