Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Lake Anna State Park, Spotsylvania, Virginia

May 20; 8:20 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:57 a.m.

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What a wonderful variety of sounds from these jays! A single blue jay starts it off during the first five seconds with four well-spaced jay calls: jay jay jay jay, all of a particular duration and tonal quality. Within a second after he finishes, off to the right two to three other jays respond; from 0:08 to 0:14, hear how these jays are all using identical jay calls. Sometimes the jays call alternately (e.g., 0:07, 0:13), sometimes more sloppily overlapping (0:09), sometimes almost perfectly synchronized (0:11). Such coordinated use of the same jay calls doesn't happen by chance: Given the seemingly infinite variety of calls these birds are capable of, it's clear that they're being very selective in what they are saying to each other here.

I love the sequence from 0:28 to 0:51. In just 23 seconds, the jays give a brief primer on the variety of sounds that they can make, beginning with a fine rendition of a squeaky gate and ending emphatically with a blue jay flying by in plain view, exclaiming something no doubt significant with five double jay calls: jay-jay jay-jay jay-jay jay-jay jay-jay. And then all is silent, except for a few more double jay calls as they fly into the distance.

And, to top it all off, a pair of yellow-billed cuckoos add a little duet at the end (1:28; use headphones to hear this best). A bird off to the right begins the song, ca ca ca ca ca . . . and soon after a bird to the left chimes in, ca ca ca ca ca, the two of them now calling together. Only the bird to the right finishes the sequence, the four seconds of ca ca ca ca ca ca ending with four seconds of kowlp kowlp kowlp kowk.


Eastern wood-pewee, house finch, red-eyed vireo, great crested flycatcher, yellow-billed cuckoo, red-bellied woodpecker.


Photo by John Van de Graaff