A Bird’s Tale

Those Off-key Bird Songs of Fall

Posted:  Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 11:00am
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With the summer-like temperatures extending so late into the fall, many birds have extended their stays. We’ve also noticed what seems like more birds singing later in the fall then normal. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, birds famously sing in the spring and summer when the cacophony of sound is enough sometimes to wake up a person at dawn—thus this burst of song is aptly referred to as “the dawn chorus.” They sing at that time to establish a territory and attract a mate.

But in the fall, the breeding season is over. Many of the birds are in migration or already on their wintering grounds. 

So why would they still sing?

One of the species that we often hear singing short and often odd, off-key renditions of songs in the fall is the white-throated sparrow. Many of these are young birds, just hatched a few months before, beginning what will a winter of practice. They are refining their songs so that they will be ready to join the ranks of breeding adults next May and June to compete for a territory and a mate. We have recently been hearing house finches singing off-key songs as well; we assume that these may also be young birds practicing for spring.

Presumably, that explanation would also apply to the song sparrows and the American robins that we have been twittering short song renditions around the neighborhood. But adult birds also sometimes sing in the fall as they establish winter territories. You may be surprised to learn that a few song sparrows (and many robins) regularly winter in Maine. Perhaps the particular song sparrow we have been hearing is one that is intending to stay for the winter.

Birds like northern cardinals, mockingbirds, and Carolina wrens are year-round residents and have now become established in much of the southern half of Maine. All three of these species often have a resurgence of song in the fall as they establish the territory they will defend over the winter. This behavior is particularly noticeable in mockingbirds and Carolina wrens, both of which will sing loudly and vigorously. We have a Carolina wren in our general neighborhood most years; we hear its loud, rollicking song intermittently echoing around the area through fall and then again in late winter.

Even some birds that don’t sing exhibit their non-vocal acoustic behaviors in the fall. Ruffed grouse are famous for the drumming sounds they make with their wings, to attract mates in the spring. But in the fall it’s not uncommon to hear the familiar thump-thump-thump sounds of a grouse emanating from a local woods. These are thought to also be birds that are establishing their winter territorial intentions to any other grouse within earshot.

We find it amusing to listen carefully to many of the young birds singing in the fall. The songs often remind us of how the uninitiated sometimes give bad renditions of classic human songs. Listen carefully in your backyard and you just may hear a “teenage” bird trying to sing the latest pop hit!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.”