Browsed by
Tag: Turdus migratorius

Subsong vs. Whisper Song

Subsong vs. Whisper Song

The American Robin frequently gives both subsongs and whisper songs. Photo by Mr. T in DC (Creative Commons 2.0).

Imagine a male robin, treetop in the early morning, belting out his song for all the world to hear, announcing his territory at the top of his avian lungs.  It’s an easy thing to imagine.  In fact, it’s pretty close to the stereotypical image of a singing bird.

Now picture that same male robin, deeper in the foliage this time, singing a song somewhat reminiscent of the usual treetop carol, but far, far quieter — so quiet, in fact, that it can’t be heard at 50 yards, and so subtle that the bird doesn’t even open its bill to sing, a slight fluttering of its throat the only clue to the source of the ventriloquial melody.

If you listen carefully to birds at close range, you’ll find that quiet, complex vocalizations like these are not uncommon.  Often, they are called “whisper songs.”  Some more technically-minded birders might call them “subsongs.”  Both subsongs and whisper songs are fascinating, but they are not the same thing.  Let’s look at the similarities and differences.


The term “subsong” has meant a number of different things since it was first coined in 1936, but I have generally thought of it as The Sound Approach described it:

Subsong…is usually given from dense cover, is often full of mimicry, and may bear little resemblance to familiar adult songs. […] Subsongs are typical of birds with a low sexual motivation, for example adults and first-year birds before the breeding season really gets started, or juveniles after it has finished.

In January and February, the flocks of American Robins that descend into the fruit trees around my home provide ample opportunities to hear and study subsong.  I have never made an attempt to age the birds I have recorded, so I can’t comment on whether the subsongs of juveniles and adults are different at this time of year.  (Intuitively, I believe that they should be different, since the avian brain changes as birds mature, but I have no evidence for this at present.)  What seems certain is that almost every robin in these flocks will sometimes get into the sub-singing mood:

American Robin subsong, Boulder, CO, 1/19/2008.

Compare the spectrogram above with the spectrograms of American Robin songs that I posted a few weeks ago, all of which were recorded in April, May, or June.   The January phrases appear more similar to “hisselies” than to “caroling” phrases, but they’re not a perfect match for either one.  Nor are they perfect matches for each other — they’re poorly stereotyped.  Add that to the extremely low volume, from a bird that doesn’t even open its bill, and you’ve got what appears to be a classic subsong — either the practice sounds of a juvenile that hasn’t yet learned to sing, or the “warmup” tunes of an adult whose neural song circuitry has atrophied over the winter, in the absence of breeding hormones.

The general theory about subsong is that the bird isn’t producing stereotyped phrases because it can’t — it either hasn’t learned how yet (as a juvenile) or it’s physiologically unprepared (as an adult outside breeding condition).  Like the babbling of infant humans, subsong provides a window into the process of vocal learning — a complicated, fascinating, messy process that, in a few short months, will result in the crisp, polished performances we know as adult song.

Whisper Song

The term “whisper song” has an even longer history than “subsong,” dating back at least to 1896, when Olive Thorne Miller wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:

A catbird at my back, too happy to be long still, would take courage and charm me with his wonderful whisper song, an ecstatic performance which should disarm the most prejudiced of his detractors.

The phrase appears to have crossed into the ornithological literature as early as 1914, with J. William Lloyd’s letter to Bird-lore titled “The Whisper-Song of the Catbird”:

The performance was like that of a bird in a reverie — like the ghost of a thought of a song. His throat merely trembled, and occasionally the bill parted just a trifle. Yet his song seemed the full repertoire of the Catbird.

Lloyd’s letter seems to have occasioned numerous other published observations of “whisper singing” in other bird species and at other times of year (e.g., Shafer 1916).  Quickly, the notion of a “whisper song” gained broad currency among people interested in birds — mostly, it seems, in reference to the same phenomenon we just described as subsong.

I prefer to restrict the term “whisper song” to another kind of quiet, complex vocalization — one that isn’t heard from juveniles or non-breeding adults, but rather from birds at a peak of sexual excitement.

American Robin courtship "whisper song," Mesa County, CO, 5/3/2011.

Note how different this whisper song is from the subsong above.  For one thing, it matches the “hissely” phrases we’ve seen from other spring robins.  The level of vocal control is much higher; the bird repeats patterns with precision.  For example, both the first and second phrases in the spectrogram include elements that are repeated exactly.  And the whole third and seventh phrases are carbon copies of one another.  This demonstrates that the bird is remembering particular phrases and re-deploying them at intervals, which means that these phrases form a repertoire, a library of remembered behaviors.  This robin isn’t “making it up” as he goes along.  He isn’t subsinging.  He’s singing.

The Sound Approach described such singing as “highly motivated, sexually charged, and ultra-crystallized,” typical of male birds in close-range courtship situations.  Indeed I have heard these whisper songs from male robins only during the breeding season, usually in the presence of females — and when no females were visible, I have suspected their presence.  This is an entirely different phenomenon than off-season subsong, and it needs a different name.  For now, “whisper song” seems like a good way to describe these complex, quiet vocalizations — the avian equivalent of whispering seductively into your sweetheart’s ear.

A Robin’s Many Songs

A Robin’s Many Songs

Anyone who listens thoughtfully to robins can’t help but bubble with questions about why robins are the way they are.
–Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, p. 37

American Robin along the Platte River, Nebraska, 3/22/2010. Photo by Len Blumin (Creative Commons 2.0).

The American Robin may be the most familiar bird in North America, but for all its abundance and approachability, it remains in some ways inscrutable.  Back in 1979, in his classic Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Donald Stokes wrote that robin courtship displays remained a mystery, and might not exist at all.  The song he called an “enigma,” pointing out that it did not appear to correlate with courtship or territoriality, instead peaking right before the young hatch in any given brood.

Some studies in the 1990s provided evidence that robin song is indeed correlated with courtship and territoriality, but they did not make any attempt to describe the song comprehensively.  That task fell to Donald Kroodsma in his popular 2005 book The Singing Life of Birds.  Each male robin, Kroodsma explained, has in his repertoire 6-20 simple, whistled “caroling” phrases and 75-100 high-pitched, complex “hisselly” phrases.  The familiar daytime song is often made up purely of caroling phrases:

  • carol carol carol… carol carol carol carol

But at dawn, the male robin often throws a hisselly phrase in at the end of each strophe:

  • carol carol carol hisselly… carol carol carol carol hisselly

In addition, some robins occasionally give long strings of hissellys without any caroling phrases:

  • hisselly hisselly hisselly hisselly hisselly hisselly

Kroodsma documents all this and more; and yet, after fifteen pages of descriptions, explanations, and explorations, he still finishes with more questions than answers:

“Why have two types of phrases, the caroled and the hisselly phrases?  Why have a dozen or two of the caroled phrases and a hundred or so of the hisselly phrases?  Do other robins count how many a male sings, and if so, is having more songs better in any way?  Why are the hissellys used mainly at dawn and dusk?  Why at dawn are three or four caroled notes followed by a single hisselly, and what could it possibly mean to sing 71 hissellys in a row?”

The average American probably hears more song from robins than from any other bird, and yet we still cannot answer any of Kroodsma’s questions.  Perhaps it is because we do not listen as carefully as we could; and perhaps it is also because what we call “song” in robins is even more complex than Kroodsma’s work has already shown.  Today’s post will push the exploration of robin song a little further, in hopes of facilitating the kind of listening (and recording) that could begin to solve the many mysteries surrounding America’s favorite bird.

Caroling phrases

First, here’s an example of the “caroling phrases,” the familiar short, clear, 1-3 syllabled phrases that we often hear during the day:

American Robin caroling song, Boulder, CO, 4/24/2008.

Hisselly phrases

Kroodsma described the hisselly as “an ethereal whispered note much like the delicate flourish at the end of a Hermit Thrush song”.  The hissellys shown below, all from the same individual male robin, have been edited together for comparison.  Note that they are much higher-pitched and more complex than the caroled phrases, with a great deal more polyphony:

Ten "hisselly" phrases from one American Robin, edited together. Boulder, CO, 5/26/2008.


The “whinny” is a familiar call of the robin, often given when the birds are alarmed:

Typical American Robin whinny call, Larimer County, CO, 6/19/2008.

But it’s not just a call.  At least at certain times, the whinny (or something much like it) becomes an important component of the robin’s song — and each individual male robin knows an awful lot of different whinnies.  Here are six that one male robin incorporated into his song within a two-minute span:

Six different whinnies from the song of a single male American Robin, edited together. Boulder, CO, 5/26/2008.

Note the complex and stereotyped fine structure above.  These are no mere alarm calls; they are song elements, no doubt about it.

Putting it all together

Here’s a confusing recording of a robin singing with carols, hisselys, and whinnies all mixed together — in fact, he is the sole source of all the hissellys and whinnies on the edited tracks above.  I recorded him in late May in Boulder, Colorado, and though there were many other robins in the immediate vicinity, none were interacting with this bird that I could see; he was perched up in a tree just belting out his song.  What in the world can he possibly be saying?

American Robin song, Boulder, CO, 5/26/2008.

The beginning of this bird’s song, illustrated on the spectrogram above, follows a pattern like this:

  • hisselly (or 2-noted whinny?) carol hisselly hisselly hisselly whinny hisselly whinny hisselly whinny hisselly

I do not know what is going on with this bird, but its song suggests that anyone seeking to understand robin song should think of the whinnies as a type of song phrase on par with the carols and hissellys.  At the same time, it reinforces what you’ve probably already realized: anybody seeking to understand robin song has a lot of work to do.