The “Tink” Call

Bay-breasted Warbler, Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario, 5/5/2007. Photo by Mdf (CC 3.0).

Not too long ago, it was commonplace for birders to make casual references to THE call or THE song of a bird species, as though every bird had only two modes of communication.  Now we know better.

These days, I’m more likely to hear casual references to THE flight call and THE alarm call.  After all, when we notice that, for example, many species of warblers and sparrows give similar high “seets” on the wing in migration and sharp “chips” in alarm when perched, it makes sense to group those calls into categories and name them after similarities in their form or function.

But there’s an odd, insidious trick of psychology at work in all of us.  If a sound doesn’t match our expectations — if it doesn’t fit one of our pre-existing mental categories — we’re much less likely to hear it.  If we do hear it, we’re likely to dismiss it as a quirk of the individual, a bird doing “something weird.”  Or else we’ll just cram it into a category we recognize: “must be the flight call, I guess.”

Something like this happened to me as I researched the “call notes” of various warblers.  I regularly ran into sounds that didn’t fit my mental categories, and after a brief period of confusion, I tended to dismiss them as atypical versions of the normal call.  Beware that word “atypical” — it strongly suggests that what you’re hearing is best ignored, that it’s an outlier at risk of messing up your dataset.

A few months ago, an online chat with my co-blogger Andrew Spencer started unraveling some of my preconceptions:

Andrew: are you going to cover alarm calls in warblers?

me: What kinds of alarm calls?

Andrew: those high pitched tink calls that many warblers give

like http://www.xeno-canto.org/13861

I think every warbler just about does tink calls when alarmed

I heard Connecticut Warbler give one

and I’ve heard it from a number of other species

but I don’t know how many recordings there are

me: Just higher-pitched versions of the normal call? Or something distinct?

Andrew: the one I linked of the Orange-crowned Warbler is distinct I think

all the ones I’ve heard sound damn near the same

me: I remember when I was researching Louisiana Waterthrush calls I came upon a recording in the Macaulay collection of a bird giving calls much higher than all the other recordings — more like your tinks. I just figured it was a crazy variation on the normal call.

Andrew: I have calls like that from Black-throated Blue Warbler as well: http://www.xeno-canto.org/30783

me: And I have a recording of an agitated Kentucky Warbler switching back and forth from a chip-like to a tink-like note.

Andrew: and I got a few from Golden-winged Warbler this past trip

me: These “tink” notes appear to be poorly described in field guides and the literature.

Andrew: doesn’t surprise me

me: This calls for a blog post.

Andrew: haha I was about to say the same thing

As soon as I started digging, I realized that these “tink” calls hadn’t gone unnoticed by everyone.  Paul Driver featured them on his blog back in 2009, under the name “high chip calls”:

A number of warblers (perhaps most?) have high chip alarm calls different to the typical chip call, sounding more like titmice or Golden-crowned Kinglet. They seem to be heard most often on breeding grounds and are often given by birds that are highly agitated; in this way they seem analogous to the high chip call of the Song Sparrow.

Funny he should mention Song Sparrow.  Recordings show that a great many species of sparrow give a “tink” note that sounds much like the “tinks” of warblers, and is given in similar situations of high alarm.  (This warbler-sparrow similarity is no coincidence – but that’s a subject for another day.)

These “tink” notes seem worth of their own category, separate from the “call” and the “flight call.”  They tend to indicate a higher level of alarm than “typical” calls, but not as high as the buzzes and shrieks that these birds give when they’re really upset (e.g., when a predator is attacking a nest, or when the bird is caught in a mist net).  Sometimes one hears calls intermediate between the high “tinks” and the lower “chips,” especially from sparrows.

“Tinks” can raise some interesting questions.  In some species, like Cape May Warbler, the “typical” call sounds much like a tink, and there may be little distinction — or is it perhaps that the tink is just more frequently given, so that we think of it as typical?  At the very least, if you happen to be in the habit of identifying Cape May Warblers by call alone, the existence of similar sounds in all these other species should give you pause.

An online catalog of “tink” recordings

Not every warbler and sparrow has a “tink,” apparently. For example, I haven’t been able to find any convincing examples from the genus Spizella (except for American Tree Sparrow, which many researchers agree is misplaced in Spizella and overdue for a move to its own genus).

I’ve attempted to assemble a collection of “tink” recordings that are available online, in order to document their existence in as many species as possible.  No doubt there are other “tinking” species not currently represented below.

If you can add to the list above, or have other useful observations of “tink”-like notes, let me know!

13 comments to The “Tink” Call

  • Ian Cruickshank

    There certainly are many “tink”-ers out there – finally someone mentions a few more of the under-reported sounds that I hear all the time :) A few thoughts; among the Spizellas, Clay-colored certainly gives calls that could be considered “tinks” regularly when agitated on the breeding grounds. The standard Lincoln’s Sparrow low chip seems to grade all the way up to a high “tink” with a full range of intermediates; I’ve mostly heard this from agitated birds on the breeding grounds. Similar to LISP, I’ve heard the standard MacGillivray’s Warbler contact call grade up to high “tinks” in agitated adults around nests and fledglings. And good luck distinguishing some Spotted Towhee fledgling calls from adult “tinks” – they can be pretty much identical. And most “typical” Le Conte’s Sparrow calls (i.e. not necessarily given by agitated birds) sound much like “tinks” to me.

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Thanks, Ian. I actually have good recordings of Lincoln’s Sparrow tinks – I was just too lazy (pronounced “busy”) to edit them and put them on the web for this blog post. And Andrew said he got some MacGillivray’s tinks last summer, but I don’t think he’s edited them yet. Maybe we can expand this list in the next few days.

  • Nice blog post on Warbler alarm calls.

    I suggest “copulation calls” as a future subject. Prothonotary Warblers have a very distinctive one – but not sure how many copulation calls are in sound collections…

  • Nathan Pieplow

    I’d love to discuss copulation calls, but I’d need recordings. Do you have any?

  • I wish! But I will check with some Warbler researchers I know – might get lucky.

  • Jesse Ellis

    Nathan-

    Great topic! Have you dug into the Birds of North America Online? I did a bit of tallying of number of vocal types for my dissertation back in 2008 (not that I published it) and some species have fairly well-described repertoires including many calls. I believe I tallied 11 for Dark-eyed Junco. The problem is that relatively few accounts have good behavioral observations that suggest context – some of them just describe the call in physical parameters without ever talking about communicative function… anyway, it’s another potentially useful resource.

    Jesse Ellis

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Yes, Jesse, I practically live inside BNA. And I’m intimately familiar with the frustrations of trying to match call descriptions in the literature to actual sounds in recordings! It’s a daily challenge here.

  • Bruce Rideout

    Nathan: I have been accumulating tink calls as well. I don’t have time to dig up my list right now, but if you leave the comments open for awhile I can probably add some to your list. Great topic.

    Bruce Rideout

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Excellent, Bruce. The comments will auto-close in a couple of weeks, but if that happens, just shoot me an email and I can make things happen on this end.

  • John Garrett

    For Spizellas, I’ve heard Black-chinned Sparrows give what sound like ‘tink’ calls (in breeding areas as well as a November migrant). Looks like Andrew Spencer recorded one, too: http://xeno-canto.org/34136

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Thanks for the link, John. I’m not sure whether I’d classify the calls in that Black-chinned Sparrow recording as true “tinks.” They cover a much broader frequency range than most of the other things I’m calling “tinks,” and they extend to a lower minimum pitch, so that they sound more like standard chip calls to me. But in some of these tinking birds, especially certain sparrows, you can find a full range of intermediate sounds between “chips” and “tinks,” and this may be an example of that.

  • Bruce Rideout

    Nathan: My filing system is failing me a bit (having trouble matching written notes to recordings), which is frustrating since high pitched calls were one of my earliest recording interests. But some of the other tinks that come to mind are Nashville warbler (Tayler Brooks has one here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/36997), sage sparrow (http://www.xeno-canto.org/43746), American redstart (very noisy recording http://www.xeno-canto.org/11489), lark sparrow (http://www.xeno-canto.org/1263), and if you broaden your definition of tink just a bit, many other species can be added. I have always interpreted these as convergent evolution towards calls that predators can’t locate (because of the inability to use interaural phase shift to determine direction of high frequency sounds). They also seem to be used at the nest in some species (the inability to localize the sound isn’t a problem for mated pairs because they already know where their nest is). I have also suspected that the relative lack of coverage of high pitched calls in the literature and other resources is because recordists also have a hard time locating the source of the sound, so they just remain unidentified high-pitched calls. I have a boat load of recordings in that category. Anyway, yet another great topic. Thanks!

    Bruce Rideout

  • Jonathon

    You already have the Audubon’s listed, but here’s a Myrtle for comparison: http://www.xeno-canto.org/132862