Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Hell’s Canyon, Copperfield, Oregon

May 27, 7:25 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:06 a.m.

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I have a confession to make. I so desperately wanted to hear a canyon wren sing in Hell's Canyon, but none would cooperate. So where the canyon met the river, on a rock outcrop where I thought surely there just must be a canyon wren, I got out my iPod and tried just a wee little playback over a wee little loudspeaker. I hate doing playbacks, because I want to know the bird as he is, not after I've riled him.

I should have known better. As if emerging from the rock face itself, a male canyon wren burst onto the scene, aggressive and feisty like all wrens are, and he wouldn't stop singing at a torid pace. It wasn't the normal kind of "relaxed singing" that one would imagine. Instead, it was intense, and he sounded very angry, and I was grateful he was no larger than the few grams that he was.

Song after song poured from his bill with little time until the next. I didn't know a canyon wren would sing like this when threatened with a singing intruder. I knew under normal song he'd pause a good time between successive renditions of one particular song, and eventually he'd switch to another song. Here, though, all of his efforts were collapsed into as short a time as possible. With little time between songs, he switches to a different song at 1:15, again at 2:48, and again at 4:51, so that four different songs are used in this barrage.

I apologized to him, promised never to do it again. Though one might argue it did him little harm, it certainly disrupted his morning, and such an event could have longer-lasting repercussions (I bet he comes back tomorrow and sings here at dawn, as he'll remember this encounter). His singing during such an event is so different from his normal, undisturbed singing, too, and it's not how I want to remember him.

For a more normal pace of singing, listen to an Oregon recording by Geoffrey A. Keller (MLHS 120251). The male in this recording sings at a normal pace, but a long session has been condensed into eight songs, with two examples of each of four different song types:

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Mourning dove, spotted towhee, song sparrow, splashing fish in Snake River, western meadowlark, Bullock's oriole,


Photo by Robert Royse