The dawn chorus outside my window at 5am. There are at least 6 species singing. Can you name them?

Who sings and when

Spring is a frantic time of year for birds. Many are returning from migration and immediately are faced with the challenge of finding food in a somewhat barren landscape, establishing a breeding territory, avoiding hungry predators (who are also starting families of their own), and hopefully mating. The pressure to reproduce is all consuming for this brief period of time. Males begin singing as early in the morning as possible – and indeed the birds with the largest eyes relative to their body size tend to singing earlier in the day (link). In my area, robins sing first, followed by white-throated sparrows, chickadees, titmice, and cardinals, and then mourning doves. By 6:30 am the robins are mostly quiet while the chickadees have become more vocal.

There are essentially 2 reasons birds sing: (1) to establish and defend territories from other individuals of the same sex and (2) to attract mates of the opposite sex. There are certainly females who sing (full list of the 144 North American species with females who sing: link), notably female cardinals, but the further north you go, the less common this is (link).

For those who can’t sing

Lang Elliott’s video of a ruffed grouse drumming

So what’s a bird to do that doesn’t come from song bird stock (order: passeriformes)? Other non-passerine birds certainly make vocalizations (hawks, herons, etc.), but some are a bit more percussive. Male ruffed grouse beat their wings to make a low-frequency thumping sound that slowly accelerates, sound somewhat like a helicopter’s rotor blades whirring up to speed.

A downy woodpecker drumming against a hollow black locust (my neighbor’s yard in Burlington)

Woodpeckers, who are already in the business of banging their heads against trees, use a combination of singing and drumming in courtship – though their singing is really more of a repeated yell: “Yak Yak Yak Yak Yak…” When excavating trees in search of grubs, ants, and other hexipedal tasty treats, woodpeckers certainly make a lot of noise, but the taps are more constant, though arrhythmic (I’ve got a trail camera aimed at a pileated feeding site so hopefully will have video to share soon).

But in territorial drumming, woodpeckers seek out dead, hollow logs and drum in a short, steady beat (see videos above and below). As one article put it: “The drumming of pileated woodpeckers is frequently associated with preening and moments of excitement, as when the birds are about to roost for the night” (link). Pileateds will drum throughout the year, though it’s less frequent and more opportunistic (whenever they pass a good drumming tree). The drumming peaks during the breeding season, with males drumming more frequently than do females.

While bird songs are easy (or somewhat easy) to recognize and use to identify the species making the song, research has shown that woodpeckers themselves are actually not that great at telling which species is doing the drumming (link). Pileated woodpeckers are over 10x the size of downy woodpeckers, so their drumming tends to be significantly louder. You might notice in the video below that the pileated tapers off at the end of its drumming as compared to the steady beat of the downy above. A dead hollow tree can magnify the drumming and a downy woodpecker is not to be underestimated for how much sound it can make. These sounds carry. When Cedar and I heard a pileated woodpecker drumming against a beech tree, we followed it to the source, which was over 400m away!!

A pileated woodpecker drumming against an American beech tree in Centennial Woods in Burlington (sorry for poor quality, shot with an iPod).

More on the topic

Digging all this natural history content?

Become a monthly supporter on Patreon.

Be sure to check the archives for back issues.
And shoot me an email if you have an idea for a future blog post, newsletter issue, or podcast episode!

Support Crow’s Path

Subscribe to the Newsletter

STAY CONNECTED, LEARN NATURAL HISTORY