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Common Chaffinch, singing in Munster, France. Photo <a href="">Amy Evenstad</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Common Chaffinch, singing in Munster, France. Photo Amy Evenstad, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Bird vocabulary

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Birds we think of as quiet will sometimes raise a ruckus. And Curt Stager noted that European birds seem to have a wider and more improvisational range of songs than their American cousins.

Martha Foley and Curt Stager discuss the vocabulary of birds.

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Martha Foley:  I’ve got a story for you from this summer. I hardly ever hear Great Blue Herons say anything. Right? I mean, they are just silent stalkers. We had a couple of herons at the lake this summer. They were squawking all the time. They have this deep croaky honk that’s kind of on the raven scale of croaking and honking.

One morning I was out early in the morning, around 5 o’clock, and I hear this big ruckass down the lake and I see one Great Blue Heron dive-bombing another one. Like a dogfight. It was very dramatic, as you can imagine with their big wings. And pretty soon he chases the other one right by me. The one that was being chased was about two feet off the water just making a beeline, and the other one is up really high honking and croaking, being really mad and chasing the other one away.

Occasionally I’ve heard herons say something, but they’re noisy this summer. I wondered if it was because there’s maybe one extra on the lake this summer and there’s a territory thing going on about fishing. I don’t know if they even have territories.

Curt Stager: Yeah, that would seem to make sense. I was noticing, over in Denmark where I was recently, the birds seemed to be noisier in the spring than here in the Adirondacks and I was trying to figure out: is it first of all true, and secondly, why is that? What’s the explanation, if there is one?

It seemed like the calls there that the birds are using are longer and louder and not as sterotyped as the ones we’re used to here. For instance, a chickadee here would have a song that would just go chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee and then does it again, does it again. These things just have this constant stream of noise and each one of them seems to be improvising.

MF: You mean the individuals. Like this blackbird and that blackbird? So how do you tell if it’s a blackbird or a lark or whatever? We’re used to being able to identify a blackbird or say, a lark by its song. How can you tell with these birds?

CS:  Exactly. It’s pretty tough. I have to admit, I could tell it was a lark and I could tell it was one of these blackbird things, but I can’t tell you how I knew. Obviously they can tell, because I’m some weird species and I can tell. It may have to do with the pitch or the tone or where they are. But that even got me thinking, why so many of the birds there are doing this improvising thing.

MF: That’s how birders do their lists. They just listen and they can identify. So why do so many of our birds have a characteristic call and so many birds in Denmark where you were do this improvisation thing?

CS: I don’t really have an explanation for that. Maybe its because some species judge their ability to mate based on their availability to improvise.

MF: I know starlings do this. That’s the one bird I can think of, here, that does this. They’ll have this long, long, long string of phrases and melodies and tunes strung together. But they’re a European bird.

CS: Yeah, which would fit in with that whole thing. It’s a big mystery to me. If anyone has any ideas I’d love to hear them. Why it would be advantageous to be improvisational over there and more standardized over here.

MF: Maybe the birds over here aren’t as crowded?

CS: Or as creative (laughs). That’s what the europeans would like to say.

MF: Thanks very much Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College. I’m Martha Foley at St. Lawrence University.

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