Songsters on the move

I have been teaching a class on Ohio Birds since January during which we visit various field sites around Columbus to look for birds. One main goal is for students to be able to identify birds visually and acoustically by the end of the semester. As you may imagine the birds we have been seeing over this time period have  changed quite a bit.

Not only the species have changed but also overall diversity. Venture out in January and you can call it a good day when you see 15-20 bird species. You want to choose your birding location carefully, a variety of habitats (lake, woodlot, open field, and bird feeder) will increase your numbers. These days however 30 species are the norm, it is migration season! While most of our winter guests such as Dark-eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow have left us and gone north to their breeding grounds in Canada, many other species that spent the winter south, some as far as Argentina, are on their way to our temperate region.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Christopher Collins, 2017

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Christopher Collins, 2017, via

Have you seen a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher yet? Guess what this bird feeds on! Listen for their begging-like calls high in the tree tops. Their long tail and light-gray appearance are a good give-away.

Spectrogram of calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Spectrogram of calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, BLB28872


Similarly flitting around in the tree tops are kinglets (family Regulidae). These tiny birds (even smaller than chickadees! they weigh only 10g or 2 nickels) seem to be constantly on the move. One of the two species that can be added to your Ohio list, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, even spends the winter with us. Truly an amazing feat in temperatures that can drop to zero Fahrenheit and below on occasions. A good photo of this species shows off their flashy bright yellow crest bordered by a black eyebrow stripe on each side.

My favorite though is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, in particular because of its song. It starts out like its close-relative the Golden-crowned with some very high-pitched tsee notes, but then truly distinguishes itself through a jumble of notes, a musical twitter, that seems incredibly loud given the small size of this songster.

Spectrogram of song of Golden-crowned Kinglet

Spectrogram of song of Golden-crowned Kinglet, BLB17541

Spectrogram of song of Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Spectrogram of song of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, BLB11487


But do not underestimate the small! My all-time favorite, the Winter Wren, delivers the loudest song (per unit body weight) of all birds, a beautiful cascade of bubbly notes.

Winter Wren. Photo by Christopher Collins, 2016

Winter Wren. Photo by Christopher Collins, 2016, via

While you may get lucky to hear this song in Ohio on occasion from one of the male Winter Wrens passing through, their song is commonly heard in the deciduous and evergreen forests of the north. By the way, did you know that the male hormone testosterone greatly influences bird song? As these males migrate and get ready for the breeding season, their testosterone levels increase and they start practicing their song – even though they are not setting up territories here or trying to attract females.

Spectrogram of song of Winter Wren

Spectrogram of song of Winter Wren, BLB44620


There are many ways to appreciate our songbirds. Since I am fascinated by their song I like to record their vocalizations and take these recordings back to our sound lab and look at them. We humans are just so visually oriented that even the song of a Winter Wren may look more beautiful to us than listening to its sound (This is of course not true if you have a musical ear or train yourself to listen carefully and pick out intricate details).

If you are interested in learning how to record bird songs, look at them at home and compare them to each other join me for a Sound Analysis workshop at the nature center at Battelle Darby Creek metro park on Saturday April 29 from 10:30-11:30 am. If you are an early riser, join us on a Bird Walk at 8 am that same day and listen to the bounty of birds singing at this time of the year.

Sound descriptions based on the ones given by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All about Birds.

Thank you Christopher Collins and Jim McCormac for the bird photos.

All recordings are archived in the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics. More detailed information for each can be accessed online; just click on each species’ name:
Blue-gray GnatcatcherGolden-crowned KingletRuby-crowned KingletWinter Wren

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and instructor of Ohio Birds each spring.

*** Which birds are your favorites? ***


Song Sparrow recordings

Inspired by Monday’s post about Margaret Morse Nice I looked up recordings of Song Sparrows in our collection. I found more than 1,600 recordings from 27 states in the USA and Canada. I was hoping to find recordings from Margaret Morse Nice’s former study area in her backyard, now Tuttle park, just north of the Lane Avenue bridge along the east side of the Olentangy river.

map of Recording locations on OSU main campus

Recording locations on OSU main campus

Instead I located a cluster of recordings in Franklin County: Don Borror, founder of our lab, recorded Song Sparrows on the OSU main campus in 1948 and 1953. [Note that these are among the earliest preserved sound recordings – the earliest existing recording in the USA is of a Song Sparrow recorded by Cornell Lab founder and pioneer in sound recording Arthur Allen in 1929.]

When we describe variation within and differences among songs, in addition to listening to recordings we often visualize sounds. We use sound analysis software to produce spectrograms that show the frequency of sound vibrations, which we perceive as pitch, over time. The darkness of the spectrogram indicates the loudness of the sound. See for yourself in this short video of one song of a Song Sparrow played in the software RAVEN, follow the moving bar while you listen – can you hear the difference among the notes?


Now listen to the variety of songs that Don Borror recorded on OSU campus and try to match them with the corresponding sonograms.   Tip: Hover your mouse over each of the spectrograms to reveal the number corresponding to the sound files below. This will help you to verify your match.

If you have enjoyed this sound matching game, I can recommend playing “Bird Song Hero“, a matching game set up by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You will not only perfect your skills in matching spectrograms to heard sound but will also learn the songs of some common garden birds. Enjoy!


About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics. Her recent research has focused on song and behavioral ecology of the White-crowned Sparrow in Oregon; each spring Angelika teaches the OSU course “Ohio Birds” where students learn about the life of birds and how to identify them in the field – by sight and sound.