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A Veery’s Two Voices

A Veery’s Two Voices

Veery, York County, Pennsylvania, 15 June 2007. Photo by Henry McLin (CC 2.0).

As a kid, I began learning to identify bird sounds by listening to the old Peterson Birding By Ear tapes (one of the best learning aids in existence for bird song, still on the market in CD form).  One part of the tape eventually wore through because I listened to it so often — the part with the Veery.

What made that part so special was that Birding By Ear played the Veery song several times — first at normal speed, and then slowed down to half and quarter speed. At full speed, the song was incredible: a shimmering swirl of notes spiralling downward, ethereal and metallic.  Slowed down, it was more incredible still. The bird’s voice rolled up and down arpeggios like someone playing pan pipes — two people playing pan pipes, actually, because the Veery is a polyphonic singer; it sings simultaneously with both sides of its syrinx.  The bird literally has two voices, one from each of its lungs, and it can control them separately. A single Veery sings a duet — and when you slow the song down, you can hear the bird actually harmonize with itself.

Today, I can recreate those slowed-down Veery songs on the computer.  And I can take it one step further: I can undo the duet.  I can edit the sound file so as to listen to one Veery voice at a time.

 The original

Here’s one strophe of a Veery song from Colorado. I’ve cleaned up the spectrogram to show how the two voices overlay one another. (Not my best photo editing, but it’ll have to do.)

Veery song, Jackson County, Colorado, 25 June 2007. Recording by Andrew Spencer

If you’re familiar with the Veery’s song from the eastern United States, you might find this example slightly less ethereal, slightly more jangling, and slightly less shimmery than the versions you’re used to hearing.  For the most part, that’s not actually due to geographic differences in Veery song (although there are some of those as well).  It’s mostly due to the fact that eastern Veeries almost always sing in hardwood forests, where their voices bounce off of innumerable trunks and leaves, smearing the sound with echo.  The Veery I’ve chosen, like most in Colorado, sings in willow carrs at medium-high elevation — a much more open habitat that lacks a forest’s echo.  It may make the Veery a little less evocative, but it makes it much easier for me to do the sound editing necessary to separate the voices from one another.

Now let’s slow the Veery down, so you can hear it harmonizing with itself:

half speed:

1/4 speed:

Separating the voices

Here’s what the spectrogram of the Veery song looks like if we make the two voices different colors:

Same Veery spectrogram, with the upper voice colored red and the lower voice colored cyan.

And here they are, separated to the best of my ability. (The first note, the rising single-voiced burr, is on both recordings.)

Upper voice (red):

Lower voice (cyan):

Having trouble following along?  Try listening to both voices at half speed:

Upper voice (red) at half speed:

Lower voice (cyan) at half speed:

What can we learn from this exercise?  First, the upper voice dominates the original song.  It’s carrying the melody; the lower voice is softer and just provides the harmony.  Second, the level of detail in each voice is immense, and can be difficult to follow even at half speed.  Third, both voices are needed to bring out the jangling, metallic quality that is so typical of Veery and its relatives. That metallic sound is an emergent property of the two voices mixing.  More on that in a future post.

Finally, and most importantly: bird sounds are really, really freakin’ cool.  But I bet most of you knew that already.



Northern Mockingbird, Val Verde County, TX, 4/30/2010. Photo by Matthew High (Creative Commons 2.0)

“Mockingbirds are among the world’s most inspired mimics,” writes composer Andrew May.  “They learn to imitate other birds’ songs (and other sounds) and incorporate them into their song. Humans, too, imitate and recycle the sounds we hear into our own songs and stories; technologies for recording and manipulating sound have made us even more avid recyclers.”

I like thinking of mockingbirds and other birds that imitate as “recyclers” rather than “mimics,” and so do some biologists.  It’s been argued that using the term “mimics” to describe mockingbirds is misleading, because in most branches of biology, “mimics” are organisms that take on or use the characteristics of other organisms in order to be mistaken for them.  The palatable Viceroy butterfly, for example, profits from its similarity to the poisonous Monarch only if predatory birds can’t tell the difference.  It may not be clear why a mockingbird chooses to belt out the song of a Carolina Wren, but everybody agrees that it isn’t trying to pass itself off as a wren; more likely its motives are closer to those of a human hip-hop artist who creates remixed songs entirely from samples.  It’s not mimicking, it’s “appropriating,” to use biologists’ favored term — or “recycling,” to use Andrew May’s analogy.

But May is not content merely to comment on the artistic motives of mockingbirds.  He has turned the tables on the mockingbird and “recycled” its already-remixed song into an artistic statement of his own.

May, an associate professor of music at the University of North Texas,  has composed a piece of avant-garde classical music called “Recyclers” that centers on a recording of a Northern Mockingbird that I made in Big Bend National Park in 2007.  I had forgotten that I gave him permission to use the recording until recently, when I stumbled across his website devoted to the composition.  I’m quite taken with it.

The part of the piece I find most fascinating is that May didn’t even use traditional musical notation.  Instead he overlaid a spectrogram of the mockingbirds’ song directly onto the musical staff:

I’ve often felt that my own musical training was very helpful in learning to read spectrograms, and I’ve seen people use spectrograms of bird songs to recreate them in musical notation, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone merge spectrograms and musical notation in this way.

In a live performance, the slowed-down mockingbird sings along on a digital recording while the performers attempt to imitate it, using their ears and their interpretation of the unorthodox score as a guide.  It’s not Beethoven, and those unaccustomed to modern classical music may find it unappealing.  But I, personally, enjoy it quite a bit.  You can listen to a 25-minute performance by the Nova Ensemble below:

As May points out,

The performance may happen anywhere – a concert hall is not necessarily the best environment. Outdoor spaces (especially those populated with mockingbirds) are encouraged.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear a chamber orchestra inviting the local mockingbird population into a joint performance?  Unfortunately, the slowed-down playback of the bird sound in May’s recording means it’s unlikely to get a mockingbird’s attention even if performed outdoors — they won’t recognize it as mockingbird song.  But knowing mockingbirds, it might not matter.  Perhaps they’ll learn something, and repeat a piece of May’s mockingbird-inspired music long after the chamber orchestra is gone.

Sounds of Extinct Birds

Sounds of Extinct Birds

Ever wondered what a Dodo sounded like?  Or a Great Auk?  Or a Kaua’i ‘O’o?

On a whim, I went looking for sounds of extinct birds on the internet, and I found a lot more than I bargained for — in more ways than one.  I managed to turn up some of the rarest, most remarkable, saddest and most haunting recordings I’ve ever heard…and also some of the looniest.  I’ll save the loony for last; let’s start with the poignant.

Dusky Seaside Sparrow

Handsome and doomed: the last Dusky Seaside Sparrow died in 1987. USFS photo (public domain).

On its Florida Bird Sounds page, the FMNH posts links to .wav files of the songs of many Florida Birds, including the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens), of which the last individual died in captivity in 1987 at Walt Disney World.  You might argue that they weren’t amazing songsters, but I rather like their style.  In addition to the FMNH site, the Macaulay Library has an extensive collection of Dusky Seaside Sparrow recordings.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Macaulay also has a number of other extinct bird sounds.  One of its crown jewels is, of course, Arthur Allen’s famous 1935 recording of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) in Louisiana.  Interestingly, a search in the Macaulay catalog for “Ivory-billed Woodpecker” also turns up John Dennis’s 1968 recording from Texas, a cut that has been the subject of much debate — see the “Notes” section of the linked page for a hint of the history of the discussion.

Bachman’s Warbler

This was one of my most exciting finds.  Both the Macaulay Library and the Borror Lab have copies of the two known recordings of Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), from 1954 and 1959, some of the species’ final years.  One of the reasons I find the song of this species so fascinating is that it contains more than an echo of the more familiar sounds of its surviving relatives, the Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers.  In short, in spite of everything, it sounds ordinary — which just makes it the more remarkable.

Hawaiian Birds

It’s not surprising that Hawaiian birds should make up a good percentage of the extinct species for which recordings exist: first, because Hawaii has lost so many species (around 35 since 1800) and, second, because a number of those extinctions have occurred in recent years, during the era of audio recording.   Here is a sampling of Macaulay’s treasures:

  • Kaua’i ‘O’o (Moho braccatus), last heard 1987: eight cuts, seven online
  • Po’ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma), extinct since 2004: one cut online
  • Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis), extinct in the wild since 2002: five cuts online

There may well be other extinct Hawaiian bird recordings out there, but I didn’t have time to track down any more.  Note that the Borror and Macaulay search functions, and likely other internet searches as well, often have difficulty with the apostrophes that are ubiquitous in Hawaiian bird names, so searching the scientific names tends to work much better.

Spix’s Macaw

Xeno-canto has a couple of recordings of the last wild individual Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) from the year 2000.  Like the Hawaiian Crow, this species persists in captivity, so hopefully its absence from the wild is temporary.

One of the most remarkable things about the Huia was the sexual dimorphism of its bill: males (front) had short, straight bills, while females (rear) had very long, decurved bills.  Painting by Walter Buller, 1888 (public domain).
One of the most remarkable things about the Huia was the sexual dimorphism of its bill: males (front) had short, straight bills, while females (rear) had very long, decurved bills. Painting by Walter Buller, 1888 (public domain).


The Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), endemic to New Zealand, was last seen in the early 20th century, so no recordings of its song exist.  However, in the early 1990s, British composer David Hindley attempted to recreate its song using a computer.  Hindley’s efforts were based on a pretty solid foundation: in 1954, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation had made recordings of an elderly Maori man named Henare Hemana (or Hamana or Haumana; sources differ on his name), who remembered the song of the Huia from his youth and was able to whistle an imitation of it for the recorder.  Hindley used that recording, together with recordings of extant New Zealand birds, to try to recreate the Huia’s song as accurately as possible.  You can’t listen to Hindley’s work on the web, as far as I know, but you can hear the original recording of Hemana’s imitation here (by playing the embedded video).  Hemana’s whistles sound otherworldly, beautiful, and entirely appropriate for a bird as unique and highly prized as the Huia.

Interestingly, after he recreated the Huia’s song, Hindley was commissioned to recreate the sounds of the extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) of the island of Mauritius.  Hindley admitted that his Dodo song was “a fantasy,” because almost no information about the bird’s actual call has survived, but he used what he knew about doves (the Dodo’s relatives) and his own imagination to create a sound that included bass-register cooing, “screaming” and “percussive sounds.”  Wouldn’t you love to hear that in a Mauritian forest?  Unfortunately, like his Huia reconstruction, Hindley’s Dodo sounds don’t seem to be available on the web.

Séance Vocibus Avium

The coo/scream/bang of Hindley’s Dodo provides us with a nice transition into the looniness I promised earlier.  Perhaps taking inspiration from Hindley, a German avant-garde musician named Wolfgang Müller in December 2008 published a collection of reconstructed sounds of extinct birds called Séance Vocibus Avium.  Packaged with a 40-page book, the CD contains eleven tracks, one per species, each authored by a different avant-garde musician.  Unlike Hindley, Müller et al. didn’t have whistled imitations to start with; they worked only from published voice descriptions, some of them very old.  The list of species is quite diverse:

  1. New Zealand Quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae)
  2. Hawai’i ‘O’o (Moho nobilis)
  3. Assumption White-throated Rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri abbotti)
  4. Pink-headed Duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea)
  5. Jamaica Petrel (Pterodroma [hasitata] caribbea)
  6. Mauritius Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas nitidissima)
  7. Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido)
  8. Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies)
  9. Lord Howe Starling (Aplonis fuscus hullianus)
  10. Guadalupe Caracara (Polyborus lutosus)
  11. Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

As of this writing, all eleven of these tracks can be heard on the internet.  They were played on the 22 January 2009 broadcast of The Wire’s Adventures in Modern Music, which can be downloaded or streamed; tracks 1-5 can be heard from 31:30 to 36:45, and tracks 6-11 can be heard between 1:19:15 and 1:24:30 (update: those links are now broken, but you can hear four of the tracks here).

Warning: you may not recognize the other sounds on this broadcast as music.  You may get particularly confused at 1:19:15, as the recreated sound of the Mauritius Blue Pigeon begins to crossfade in over the end of the previous track, which is called “Extensity Of Hard Disk Drive” and indeed sounds like something my computer hardware might sing if I were using it as a percussion instrument.  Except for the pigeon, all the other tracks are introduced by a man’s voice speaking the common name of the bird in German, much as you would expect on a commercial bird sound CD.

My reaction to these tracks was decidedly mixed.  I liked the ‘o’o, the pigeon, the rail and the caracara.  The Pink-headed Duck and the Heath Hen sounded to me like people imitating birds. In the cases of the Jamaica Petrel and the Lord Howe Starling, the artists seem more interested in their art than in any real attempt at verosimilitude: the petrel “call” harkens forward to a time when humans have solved the extinction crisis by introducing cybernetic replicas of endangered species into the wild, and the guy who did the starling was just plain frightening.

I have to say, though, that the grand finale, the Great Auk, was well worth the wait. It also sounded like a person imitating a bird, but with masterful abandon, squawking and gurgling in ways I think would have been worthy of the Original Penguin itself.  Great fun.

I’d love to hear of more sounds of extinct birds on the web, if anyone finds others.