Teachers’ Lounge

Bird Vocalization of the Month: Mid-March Medley

by ocarmi on Mar. 24th, 2009 5 Comments

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Bird song is often concentrated in the morning. My late ornithology teacher, Dr. Ned Johnson, taught us that one hypothesis as to why birds sing so much in the morning is that it’s useful to them to reaffirm their social status after the long lull of the night. Bird song can give other birds a clue as to how good a mate the singer is likely to be, or how strong a competitor.

These early morning “dawn choruses” change over the year, often increasing in intensity towards spring, as males use song to attract mates. The also change in composition, as wintering birds leave the Bay Area to migrate north, others arrive from the south, and still others remain.

To find out what the local dawn chorus sounds like at this time of year, I stepped out of the Academy early Wednesday morning, March 18, and recorded what I heard in Golden Gate Park. Recording was challenging over the loud hum of early morning traffic, and in-between frequent interruptions by buses and garbage trucks. My recordings are not very refined, but I hope they provide a glimpse as to what may be encountered in our urban environment, within the realistic context of urban noise. Here are some of the birds I heard:

American Robin
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Photo credit: Eric Heupel
American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were some of the earliest risers, announcing themselves with this call. They soon started to sing. Robin song is one of the most frequently asked about vocalizations, with people wondering what bird sings so beautifully early in the morning. They sang in increasing number, peaking around 7:00 am, creating this dreamy, echoey soundscape.
I heard the occasional Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) song long before dawn. However, shortly after the robins began singing, Song Sparrows increased their song rate, allowing me to obtain a few recordings. A Song Sparrow will often sing a very similar song over and over for a length of time, and then make a modification and sing a new songtype for a while. Neighbors sound distinctly different from one another. Check out the variety from three individual birds: sparrow #1, sparrow #2, sparrow #3.
Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
Photo credit: Len Blumin
Song Sparrow song often includes a long, noisy, broadband note (one consisting of broad range of pitches all at once) somewhere in the middle of the song. This sound, and the general pattern of the song—a kind of jumble of various kinds of sounds at extreme pitches—reminds me a great deal of the sound of a fax modem (if any of you can recall what one sounds like)!

I did not manage to record everything I heard, but here are a few more notable vocalizations. Chestnut-backed chickadees (Poecile rufescens) were also among the early risers. Shortly after, and still before light, I managed to catch this pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) flying overhead. I was confounded by one particular vocalization, which turned out to be one of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca).

Male Townsend's Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler, Dendroica townsendi
Photo credit: Greg7
I feel very lucky to have obtained a recording of one of my favorite spring songsters—the Townsend’s Warbler (Dendroica townsendi), which sings a thin, buzzy song. Townsend’s Warblers are beautiful, but often difficult to see, since they spend much of their time in the canopy of conifers. They sing with increasing frequency as spring progresses, but eventually leave to breed further north, in the Northwest, from Oregon, as far north as Alaska.

Finally, just before 8:00 am, I was quite surprised to hear several Winter Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) singing to each other, by a gully near Fulton Street. Winter wrens are tiny, brown birds which seem to be constantly on the move around fallen logs on the banks of streams in wooded areas. They are very difficult to see. There is a good-sized population of wintering Winter Wrens in the Bay Area, and a smaller one of nesting Winter Wrens. I have no idea if the Winter Wrens I recorded were winterers, spring migrants, or if they’ll end up staying for the summer and breeding!

Your homework assignment:

  • Familiarize yourself with the song of the American Robin, one of the most frequently asked about natural sounds.
  • Listen to the recordings of the Song Sparrows, and see whether you can identify the broadband note in the middle of the song. Do you agree with me that the Song Sparrow sounds like a fax modem? What do you think it sounds like?
  • Listen to the other recordings. Choose one you particularly like, and listen to it several times. When you’re walking about in the morning, or anytime during the day, and you hear a bird vocalization, ask yourself if it matches any of the ones you’ve learned.


5 Comments So Far

  1. Karen Bagshaw on Apr. 1st, 2009 at 7:43 PM

    Thank you, I love, love, love being able to identify SF birds with your vocalization recordings. I am a preschool teacher here and we (teachers & kids) often hear birds just beyond our schoolyard. We have a SF backyard birds book and this is the perfect companion. Please keep adding to this collection of local bird vocalizations!

  2. sarah on Apr. 2nd, 2009 at 10:00 AM

    @Karen– it sounds like you might be interested in one of our “Busy Birds” Junior teaching kits! Junior kits are sets of curriculum and materials designed for preschool and kindergarten students that you can borrow to use in your classroom. The “Busy Birds” kits include birdsong identifiers (which play samples of bird vocalizations), bird egg specimens, bird footprint stamps, books, binoculars, and more.

    Check them out on our website: http://www.calacademy.org/teachers/erk.php
    and look under the “Junior Kits” tab.

    Feel free to contact me for more information.
    Sarah Soule, (415) 379-5816, ssoule@calacademy.org

  3. Ore on Apr. 3rd, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    Dear Karen, I’m so glad that my blog is useful! I will keep posting recordings of local birds. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for what might be helpful to you. I’ll even take requests! Yours, Ore

  4. Karen Bagshaw on May. 2nd, 2009 at 1:38 PM

    Thanks, Ore!
    I wish I could meet you sometime because there is a particular bird song that has been driving my brother & I nuts (in that we can’t identify it–not because it isn’t beautiful–it is!) for many years. We think it is from a nondescript little brownish bird, similar in looks to a sparrow, but aren’t sure. It has a three note beginning then a trill. I’ve heard it in Noe Valley, in the Duboce neighborhood and in the Presidio.

    Are you ever at the Academy? I could whistle it for you. I will be picking up a Junior bird kit on Sunday, May 24. Any chance of your being there that day?

    I use the archive section to go back and hear particular birds. I wish you could have a page with just the bird pictures and corresponding songs all in one place as you keep adding new birds. That would be a quick, awesome resource!

    Thanks for all your effort–you’re making a great contribution to our learning and enjoyment! Karen

  5. ocarmi on May. 14th, 2009 at 5:55 PM

    Dear Karen,

    I will be in touch with you about meeting at the Academy–I’d love to hear you whistle your mystery bird call. (I have no talent of the sort). I only hope I’ll be able to help you identify the bird!

    From your description, one possibility is that it’s a Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii), which is quite common in the Bay Area in a variety of habitats, including woodland, chaparral, and suburban vegetation. Here is a recording my advisor, Dr. John Dumbacher, recently made of a Bewick’s Wren in Mount Diablo State Park. There are many patterns to the Bewick’s Wren song, so this one might not match exactly; but does anything about the song ring a bell (so to speak)? There’s a quality to many Bewick’s Wrens’ songs that seems cocky, or smart-alecky to me. That’s an anthropomorphism, of course, but it helps me remember the song.

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