A Few Notes About Bird Songs
By Michael LaCombe and Sam Wainright
It’s not that the early bird gets the worm. It’s that he gets the girl. Most bird songs are sung by males, and most sing early in the morning to attract a mate and to mark off territory. (This is why early morning birding is best - the birds announce themselves and it’s easier to see them. Most of the time.)
On Peaks, arguably the first birds up in the morning are Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and the American Robin. Generally, larger birds, and those who hang out higher in the trees are up first. Maybe they are the first to be aware of the new dawn, the coming again of light. This is true of cardinals and robins certainly, who sing from on high, and very early in the morning, though later in the day they frequent other habitats.
With cardinals, both the male and the female sing, and at least 16 different calls have been recorded. Females sing to direct the male where to bring the food. Males may each have an individual repertoire of 7 or 8 songs, each male’s repertoire differing from another one. It seems that a particular repertoire identifies a particular male - at least among cardinals.
Robins sing a series of about ten notes - clear whistles, repeated syllables, then pause … and begin again. The song is very familiar and once pointed out to you, becomes unmistakable. Unless there might be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak or Scarlet Tanager around. We have both on the island, and both have songs very similar to a robin’s. That of the grosbeak is described as “a robin who has taken singing lessons,” and the tanager’s, “a robin with a sore throat.” Both tend to stay high in the trees later in the day, and are often tough to see, even when the song sounds very close.
The Song Sparrow is our most common striped-breasted sparrow on the island. They are everywhere, tend to stay low in the bushes, about 6-10 feet high, and announce their song with an introductory 3-4 note opening that some have likened to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Some birds are mimics. The Northern Mockingbird and the Gray Catbird are masters, and we have both on the island. They are very skillful at mimicking other species, and cats, as catbirds can. Brown Thrashers are mimics as well, perhaps the best in North America. It can sing up to 2000 different songs. We have Brown Thrashers on Peaks as well, but not in abundance, and only in one specific locale, in my experience. In deference to the landowner, I can’t tell you where they are. Starlings mimic, as do Blue Jays. The best mimic bird I’ve ever heard is Patty Wainright’s parrot Molly. The first time I heard her say, “Here’s Dad!” I thought there was a stranger upstairs.
Why do birds mimic? Well, if you can sound like a Cooper’s Hawk, (or a cat) you can better protect your nest and food stores from other birds. Expert mimicry also serves to impress a mate: the more variety in mimicked songs, the more intelligent the prospective mate -- the more upwardly mobile.
Our island’s warblers have repetitive, clear simple songs. The sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet of the Yellow Warbler and the zee zee zo zeee of the Black-throated Green Warbler are commonly heard along the backshore, and at the height of Brackett Avenue.
Lastly, a personal favorite: the Peabody bird, or White-throated Sparrow, that sings Old Sam… Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.
If you want to learn more about this topic, and hear some sample songs and where they may be heard, you can do so at the PILP Annual Meeting at Fifth Maine, on July 11th, 6-8 PM.
Reviewed by Patty Wainright and Michelle Brown
Photograph credits: Wiki Commons Public Domain