Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Stevensville, Montana

June 1994, mid-morning

Sunrise at 5:43 a.m.

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Western marsh wrens in all their wonder.

Feel the energy in this male's songs, with the buzzes and rattles and tonal sounds, as he races from one song to the next. Listen to each in turn, marking how distinctively different each is from the previous one. He has over 100 songs in his repertoire, and in this brief sequence offers 20 different songs without any repetition: A B C D E F GH I J K L MN O P Q R S T (GH and MN are double songs).

If you listen to the singing marsh wrens in the background, you begin to hear how these birds use their learned songs to interact with each other. Listen especially from 0:26 to 0:31, as the background bird sings a double song that is then matched exactly by the foreground bird (songs GH). If you listen carefully during the following times you'll hear other examples of the foreground bird matching what the background bird has just sung: 0:00 to 0:03, 0:21 to 0:25, 0:41 to 0:45, 0:45 to 0:49, 1:18 to 1:22. Only once does the foreground bird obviously sing a song that is then followed by a background bird, during seconds 0:34 to 0:37.

Based on what I can hear, I can now rewrite that earlier song sequence, inserting what I hear from the background birds as lowercase letters: aA B C D E fF gh G H I iJ kK lL M N O P Q R S tT (try listening again as you follow along in this lettered sequence, and I think you'll hear the interactions--better yet, download this recording into Raven-lite and SEE what these marsh wrens are singing).


a second western marsh wren, bullfrogs, yellow-headed blackbirds, tree swallows (?)


Photo by Brian L. Sullivan