Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Lake Anna State Park, Spotsylvania, Virginia

May 20; 5:33 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:57 a.m.

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On the shore of Lake Anna, with a great blue heron squawking at the water's edge, a chorus of mourning doves greets the dawn, each singing its cooowaah, cooo, coo, coo. How many are there? I feel at least three nearby, but in the distance are more. Mournful? Yes, I suppose. It's easy to see where they got their name.

Offsetting the mournful mourning doves is a cheery northern cardinal, though it is the least exciting cardinal that I think I've ever listened to. Normally, at this time of the morning, a cardinal would be hustling through his song repertoire, but not this fellow. He sings one simple song (A), all the way through to 3:08, occasionally adding a few notes on the end (e.g., 0:14), with one exception, when he offers a single rendition of an even simpler song at 2:22 (B). The two are so similar it's tough to distinguish them. Then, at 3:08, he switches to that second song (B), singing it through to 8:18, when he switches back to A for another two minutes in this selection!

Why he uses such a limited variety of songs this morning is a puzzle. If he's a typical northern cardinal, he has a dozen or so songs that he could sing, and at this time of morning most cardinals would sing ten or so songs of a given type before switching to another, racing through their entire song repertoire. But he sings nearly 50 renditions of B before switching, and he switches back to the A he had just left. Perhaps his low variety has something to do with the male singing in the background, but how or why is unknown. The background male cardinal can be heard about 2:20 in this recording, and the two males at that time are singing different songs. The background male does switch to song B at 2:54, and just a few songs later the foreground male matches him with B's of his own (at 3:08).

How intriguing, and how true that no two singing performances by any cardinal are the same.


frogs, wood thrush, gray catbird, another northern cardinal, great blue heron (3:45), blue-gray gnatcatcher, chipping sparrow


Photo by John Van de Graaff