Mystery Sound – answer

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23 Jun 2011 – Concord, MA

If you’d like to take the quiz before you read the answer, my initial post about the mystery sound is here. You can listen to the recording here

Hearing a bird call I don’t recognize, in my yard, is… well, I can’t remember the last time it happened.

This is suburban eastern Massachusetts, oak and white pine forest with lots of small openings and gardens. The common birds that I hear every day are Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler, American Goldfinch, etc. It didn’t sound like any of those. My brain wanted to match it with Tufted Titmouse at first, because it was a series of three strong whistled notes, but the pattern was wrong and unlike any Tufted Titmouse.

The notes had an emphatic, explosive quality that reminded me quite a bit of the “pip-pip-pip” call of Olive-sided Flycatcher, and actually that was the best match I could come up with, but it would be very unusual in this place and time and it didn’t sound quite right. I considered the thrilling possibility of a vagrant from the neotropics. Maybe this is what Crowned Slaty Flycatcher sounds like? I considered the possibility that it was an escaped cage bird.

There were two real possibilities: it was either a rare bird I had never heard before, or a rare or abnormal vocalization of a common bird. I suspected the latter. Since this was June in Massachusetts I knew that it could be the begging call of a fledgling bird, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.

When I heard it in the treetops I also heard the calls of an adult Baltimore Oriole nearby, which is a species that nests in the neighborhood within a few hundred yards. Given that, I checked online audio recordings and found a match. It was a fledgling Baltimore Oriole. You can hear better recordings of the call here:

The Fledgling Project – click on Baltimore Oriole

and here:

Calls of fledgling birds are often a source of confusion this time of year. I may have heard this call before, and forgotten it, but it is probably only used for a few days by each individual fledgling, so if you’re not in the right place at the right time you could easily go through a season (or several) without hearing it. What makes it especially confusing is that it doesn’t particularly sound like a begging call. Most fledgling calls have a certain wheezy and immature quality, they just sound like baby birds, but not this one.

I’ll just have to try to remember it in the future.

14 thoughts on “Mystery Sound – answer”

  1. Very informative essay – thanks! I loved taking the “quick.” Baltimore Orioles have nested around our CT yard for years, and the parents often bring the juveniles to a huge native mulberry tree in our back yard. On those occasions, I’ve had good opportunities to observe and listen to the juveniles, so this sound was immediately familiar to me. DEE-DEE-DEE! DEE-DEE-DEE-DEE! It is, as you say, explosively insistent.

    One of the things I love about the blackbirds, orioles, and their allies is the wonderful array of sounds they make – few “songs” but an amazingly colorful range of squeaks, burbles, glugs, clicks, clucks, whistles, rusty hinges, trills, and tinkles.

    The mulberry is a bird magnet in early spring, when the blossoms attract nectar and insect feeders, and now at mid-summer, when the ripening fruit draws in the fruit eaters. The tree is elderly, and woodpeckers are also very busy in the dying branches. In the winter, our resident Cooper’s Hawk uses her favorite branch to keep an eye on our feeders and make the occasional foray.

    People underappreciate dead and dying trees. We have several around our yard, left standing specifically for the birds and other animals to use. Some people might find them “unsightly” but I don’t, especially when they draw in so many birds!

  2. Hmmm….for about a week or so? The calls seem to be used when the family groups are togther — parents leading young to food sources. Somehow I associate the TEE DEE DEE with the flight of young orioles in and around and between the trees. Perhaps the orioles in my neighborhood are just very vocal in this manner? Maybe it’s a learned behavior passed from generation to generation.

    1. Thanks Sarah, there’s very little information on this, so your observation is helpful. I suspect these calls are only given for the few days after the young leave the nest while they are still dependent on the parents. It’s likely that all Baltimore Orioles give the call, and that I’ve just never been in the right place to hear it. There is quite a bit of variation in the few recordings I found, so part of the function of the sound may be to help the parents recognize their individual offspring (I think a similar function has been documented for fledgling Common Murre calls).

  3. I have to agree with you David that fledglings DO indeed sound a lot more like baby birds and immatures than their adult conspecifics. Like you, I am very familiar with the birds around my yard here in Upstate South Carolina, characterized believe it or not, by mixed oak-pine forests, openings, and well-maintained gardens. The typical avifauna include robins, mockingbirds, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, crows, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, red-bellied & downy woodpeckers. So when I hear an unfamiliar sound, I’m slightly disturbed, or should I say perplexed. It’s as if one part of me is attempting to tell that bird making that strange sound, “How dare you try to fool me? I know all the bird sounds around here! You definitely are from out of the area!”

  4. Love this post. I’ve been enjoying all the fledglings around my area this week (rural SW MI), inc. some Baltimore Orioles, but haven’t picked up this call yet (I’m lousy at learning bird vocalizations) so now I will be listening for it especially.
    Sarah, we have two wild mulberries that were no doubt “planted” by birds a couple of decades or more ago, and I couldn’t agree more that the birds absolutely love them. Was watching a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in one of them today, and noticed the male’s bill was stained a bit purple from the ripe berries. We even have a woodchuck that lives in a grove behind one of the mulberries and regularly climbs the tree–I’ve seen him easily 15′ up in the branches; for several years, now.

  5. Great post, David. For the record, I got the quiz wrong: I thought for sure it would be a Blue Jay!

    In my experience, that typical “wheezy” quality of many immature bird calls comes from noise (or chaos) in their calls, but not all birds have it. I remember spending some time tracking down a completely unfamiliar bird sound in southwest Colorado one summer — I was thinking there was a chance it might be the first state record of Hutton’s Vireo — but it turned out to be a begging juvenile Cassin’s Finch. We’re entering the most challenging time of the year for identifications, in my opinion!

    1. Thanks, I agree this is the most challenging time of year for bird calls, mostly because the calls are used for such a brief time it’s difficult to become familiar with them. Since I posted this I’ve been curious about Bullock’s and other orioles. Can I infer from your comment that Bullock’s Oriole does not have a begging call like this?

  6. David,
    You’ve led me to think more deeply about this call. I know that young Baltimore Orioles make it, but during one recording session up here in s. Ont, I’m sure I recorded young Orchard Orioles giving the same calls. I didn’t get a good look, but I also heard the soft “WEEP” calls of the adult at the same time. I found it difficult to find corroborative evidence for this among my various sources, but A.C. Bent quotes Francis Allen as saying that the food calls of young Orchard Orioles resemble those of Baltimore Orioles, but are higher-pitched and more rapid. My sample of this Orchard Oriole version is available on my website (www.birdsongidentification.com) at “Open Woods and Brushy Areas” in the “Recordings by Habitat” section. I have attributed this call to the Orchard Oriole in my book on bird song identification (“Bird Song Defined Decoded Described”), but am open to correction or more hopefully corroboration. Please omit the book reference if this is inappropriate.

  7. The begging call is given from the nest to begin with. That’s how I locate the nests. If I had to guess, I’d say 4 days or so before fledging.

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