Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


The Ozarks: Hawn State Park, St. Genevieve, Missouri

May 29, 5:07 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:42 a.m.

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Chipping sparrows in their finest hour, the pre-sunrise dawn chorus. Three of them have gathered to duel here on the pavement, and by listening carefully to the first four seconds you will hear the unique songs of the three different individuals involved. The first bird (A), somewhat distant, has a raspy song; the second bird (B) is a little closer and has a fairly slow, sweet song; the third bird (C) is loudest and has a rapid tonal song, with each phrase sweeping strongly downward. Those first four seconds are the key to listening to how these three birds interact, but only during the first 40 seconds!

A loud song from Bird C is last heard at 0:37, and he then disappears for some time. Just seconds later another chipping sparrow (D) is heard, and by 0:43 he is the loudest, apparently having replaced bird C in this three-some of chipping sparrows. Birds B, C, and D then continue singing for about four minutes, until something of a stir is created by the return of bird C. Bird C sings tentatively at 4:31, a little louder at 4:33, and then sings with full strength by 4:41, and high, thin notes up around 10,000 Hz reveal the strained tensions between at least two of these birds. Bird D remains, however, offering a muted song at 4:49, 4:53, and then he's again at full strength by 4:56.

It's remarkable what a little sleuthing among the sonagrams can reveal, all thanks to the fact that each chipping sparrow singing in a small area typically has a unique song with which he can be identified. I would learn a little more about chipping sparrows here later in the morning, as two additional individuals (with different songs) would sing nearby along the road, on their daytime territories, but they were elsewhere during these lek-like singing interactions at dawn. And the dawn singers were long gone by sunrise, presumably off to their own daytime territories.


Yellow-breasted chat, summer tanager, whip-poor-will, mourning dove.


Photo by John Van de Graaff