Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Hell’s Canyon, Copperfield, Oregon

May 27, 5:41 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:06 a.m.

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A gray catbird, but not just any ole gray catbird! As I listen to this bird, I hear allusions to many other birds that this catbird knows.

Throughout these four and a half minutes are FITZ-bew songs of willow flycatchers (at 0:01, 0:28, 0:43, 1:24, 1:26, 2:18, 2:56, 3:58, 4:00), what sound like Klee-yer! calls of northern flickers (0:03, 1:08, 2:12, 3:01, 3:55, 4:03), the shortened asthmatic kee-eeee-arrr screams of red-tailed hawks (0:31, 2:21, 4:15), brief segments of what sound like phrases from a Cassin's vireo (0:34, 1:14, 2:47), the rattle of a female jay (0:10, 1:39, 2:48, 3:54). I swear I hear a western kingbird on occasion (e.g., 0:11, 1:35), and there's the rhythm of a California quail's chi-CAH-go (0:39, 2:05, 3:43).

I take a couple of lessons home from this bird. First, he's a respectable mimic, but not all catbirds mimic like this, even though presumably they are all capable of doing so. Is this male a special mimic because he's out here on the edge of the catbird range and he has few other catbirds to listen to, instead taking his singing lessons from other species? Perhaps the best mimic I've heard among gray catbirds was from a California bird, well outside the normal range of this species.

Second, he is capable of repeating himself. When we listen to birds like a catbird, we think it's an endless stream of different sounds, but not so. The rattle like that of a female jay is distinctive and occurs four times. Same for that distinctive sound of the "quail" and the scream of the hawk, each of which occurs three times.

Third, if I take the jay and quail sounds, some of the most distinctive and highly repeatable sounds, I can say that he returns to an identifiable sound three to four times within these four and a half minutes. So it takes him 60 to 90 seconds to race through much of what he knows before repeating himself. That gives me a rough idea of the "return time" for different sounds in his repertoire.

Fourth, well, what a fine bird!


Yellow warbler, black-billed magpie, Bullock's oriole.


Photo by John Van de Graaff