Every winter, Freeport Wild Birds (in Freeport, Maine) runs the funniest birding contest in the world, the Snowbirder Contest, where participants are judged not on their birding prowess, but on their willingness to show up! The colder it is, the more points you get. Congratulations to Frank Paul, one of this year’s winners! Frank braved sub-zero temp’s all winter and won our combo pack: Master Birder Landbirds and Waterbirds.
A fascinating study out of the University of Guelph has documented changes over time in the songs of Savannah Sparrows. Studying 800 individual birds over the course of three decades, the researchers found that certain parts of the song did not change, but others were subject to strong pressures of cultural evolution. Some of these changes, particularly the shortening and lowering of the final trill, were strongly correlated with increased reproductive success, suggesting a cultural process of sexual selection.
For the most part, Savannah Sparrow males learn and sing only one primary song their entire lives. Young males learn their songs from their fathers, but also from their neighbors, and gravitate towards the more successful males. In this way, the dialects of the most desirable males tend to predominate. On Kent Island, at any rate, the sexiest song is one that ends with a low, short trill.
The full study can be downloaded here (PDF).
In the latest Larkwire release, you may have noticed a subtle change: on the group comparison page, recordings are no longer presented in alphabetical order (AK to WY), but are now in geographical order, north to south and west to east (AK to FL).
Because so much of song variation is geographical, it makes sense to present the sound samples organized that way as well, even when there are no recognized subspecies. The only exception to this is when there are subspecies, we make sure that they’re grouped together regardless of geography.
We just released an update to all Larkwire songpacks that includes a number of improvements, among them a more detailed indication of subspecies sounds. For example, below you can see each White-breasted Nuthatch recording is tagged by subspecies; and below that the same for Fox Sparrow.
I have to confess that when Michael O’Brien first approached me about having us add this information, I thought it would appeal only to the most elite earbirders. But I realize now that I was completely wrong. For anyone who’s trying to learn these sounds, having the subspecies marked out is invaluable. Here’s why.
One of the key challenges we face as learners is the variability of bird sounds. Trying to distinguish White-breasted Nuthatch from Red-breasted, for example, is made all the harder by the fact that White-breasted calls are so variable. You may master it for one recording, but then be completely baffled by the next.
The subspecies labels help us by giving us hooks to hang onto and also by helping us focus on one subset of sounds at a time. These are time-tested learning techniques that are invaluable when coping with variability.
In fact, they’re not limited to subspecies distinctions. In some places (e.g., Great Horned Owl, below), we’ve tagged sounds with gender. Again, by adding structure, we help you cope with variability. And besides, it’s just so fascinating!
Andrew Balmford is a British conservation biologist who tackles big, urgent questions such as how to reconcile farms and wild nature, how much is biodiversity worth in economic terms, and how much would it cost if we really wanted to save nature? Now he’s written a wonderful book chronicling some major conservation success stories.
Such a book inevitably comes with a warning label: conservation success remains far outweighed by destruction. And yet … it’s hugely important that we celebrate and learn from these inspiring stories, including:
- A national park in Assam (India) which has a highly effective anti-poaching program (incorporating both carrots and sticks);
- The U.S. Safe Harbor Program, which removes the perverse incentives that sometimes have made the Endangered Species Act feared and hated by private landowners hosting protected species;
- A national invasive species control program in South Africa which combines an anti-poverty public works program, critical watershed protection for farmers, and removal of invasive species threatening the nation’s fabulous biodiversity;
- A rewilding program in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated and domesticated landscapes on Earth;
- Alcoa mining restoration program, in which a corporate giant demonstrates long-term commitment to good stewardship;
- Marine Stewardship Council, the critical effort to create a sustainability standard for the ocean commons.
If you are passionate about biodiversity conservation, these stories will give you hope, inspiration and insight. All profits from the book benefit conservation organizations.
As we put the finishing touches on Larkwire Water Birds of North America, I thought some of you might enjoy a little peek inside the process.
For months we have been building the library of recordings. Even for some common calls (e.g., the contact call of American Bittern), it’s suprisingly tough to get material we can use. For many species, we’ve combed literally every recording Macaulay and Borror have, and then reached out to other recordists, as well. We’ve rejected hundreds of samples because there’s too much background noise, overlapping vocalizations, or they’re just not typical enough.
Thankfully, for most species, we manage to find a good selection. In fact, in many cases, we accumulate more than the “typical three” that we feature in most levels of the game. (Only at Master level are you challenged with more than three samples per call.)
Once we’ve assembled all these samples, Michael O’Brien listens to all of them again and picks the “top three.” It helps to be one of the best earbirders on the planet! To give you some insight into this process, here are Michael’s comments on our samples for American Coot Anxiety call. At this point, we had three samples, but as you’ll see, Michael wasn’t completely happy with them:
It seems that we probably have two call types here. The 1st FL cut is a good example of the Anxiety call, but the other two in that section are something different, though related and also common calls. I think, for our purposes, we can lump them, but there’s another more classic variation of the Anxiety call that we need to get. A good example of this is ML Audio 43003, 0:19-0:22. This will give us three cuts that represent a good range of related calls.
Note the word “probably”! One of the things I’ve learned from Michael is to be absolutely humble in the face of how much we don’t know about bird sounds. Also, we quite often find that calls don’t fit as neatly as we’d like into simple boxes; often they exist on a continuum (e.g., alarm calls that are a more intense version of contact calls). For all of these reasons, and more, it’s invaluable to have Michael’s extraordinary field knowledge—and every time you use Larkwire, you’ve got that at your fingertips.
Here’s the final set of cuts we used in the product. The MB cut is the “classic variation” that Michael didn’t want you to miss.
I’ve always thought that nest parasitism (e.g., cuckoos laying eggs in other species’ nests) seemed particularly evil and wondered what defences species have evolved against this. An amazing study from Australia has just come out showing that Superb Fairy-Wren mothers basically teach their chicks a food password. If the nestlings don’t give the password, they aren’t fed! Presumably, nest parasites (such as cuckoos) haven’t evolved the ability to learn the password and therefore won’t succeed.
The mothers actually vocalize these special calls to their eggs and the study shows that the babies learn the calls before hatching. Once hatched, the chicks’ begging calls include the “password call” that the mother gave. Different mothers give different calls and the study shows that these variations are not genetic but learned. It would be very interesting to know more about the call variations used by the mothers.
The other thing that would be amazing to observe would be a nest in which both alien and native babies were present—in order to see whether mothers actually feed their own babies and ignore the others.
The New York Times has a fascinating piece called The
Sound of a Damaged Habitat. In it, musician and soundscape recordist
Bernie Krause describes a before-and-after experiment that he did to measure
the effects of selective logging on a stand of old growth forest in the Sierra
On a June morning prior to the logging, Krause recorded the rich variety of
bird songs and other sounds, a dawn chorus that included Lincoln’s Sparrows,
MacGillivray’s Warblers, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Pileated Woodpeckers,
Golden-crowned Kinglets, robins and grosbeaks, as well as squirrels, spring
peepers and numerous insects.
In the ensuing years after the logging, Krause returned over fifteen times to
record in the same location. Visually, the forest is unchanged, however the
soundscape has never approached its original richness. He writes,
“I’ve returned 15 times since then, and even years later, the density and
diversity of voices are still lost. There is a muted hush, broken only by the
sound of an occasional sparrow, raptor, raven or sapsucker. The numinous
richness of the original biophony is gone.”
Using the natural soundscape, especially bird sounds, as a measure of
biodiversity and ecological health makes good sense and has been supported
As with all birding, earbirding and conservation go hand in hand.
One of the fascinating challenges to creating a new Larkwire songpack is organizing the sounds into similarity groups. With landbirds, for instance, we have a group such as “Robin-like,” which includes tanagers, several vireos and other species whose songs are confusable with the song of American Robin.
With waterbirds, these groups don’t cross taxonomic families quite as much. Grebes are mostly grouped with grebes, rails with rails, herons with herons, and so forth. But one of the groups that I find fascinating is “Wing sounds,” which includes several ducks and swans. Differences in pitch and quality give very distinct clues to species identity. Here are a few samples:
Mute Swan wing sound
Trumpeter Swan wing sound
Tundra Swan wing sound
Northern Shoveler wing sound
Common Goldeneye wing sound
Surf Scoter wing sound
We’ve been hard at work on our Larkwire waterbirds songpack and it’s coming together nicely. Despite the fact that none of these species are “songbirds,” there’s wonderful variety and beauty in the sounds that they make.
There’s the strange harrumphing of the Long-tailed Duck:
Of course, the wailing of the Common Loon:
And how about the haunting, whistling trill of the Long-billed Curlew: