He Sings, She Decides

Today marks the culmination of a week’s worth of intense listening to the songs of my backyard Eastern Towhee. I really prefer the old moniker Rufous-sided Towhee because it’s more descriptive. This bird is, I think, a resident bird. Towhees in my yard have successfully hatched and raised their young here for years. But now I know more about how they sing.

Inspired by Donald Kroodsma’s studies of male Towhee songs, I thought I might try my own hand at a little junior science. Every morning for the past week, I’ve arisen early to hear him sing. He usually starts in the shrubs that surround the house. Sometimes he starts at the right front (RF) of the house and moves around to the back. Other times his movements include the shrubbery of my neighbors. But wherever he moves while singing, I am listening, and so is she. Kroodsma reminds me that while he sings, she decides what good singing is and whether he is a worthy mate to sire her offspring.

Here’s a photo of my bird:

My yard Towhee feeding under my backyard feeder

How many songs does he know? Does he have favorites? Does he experiment, improvise? Which songs does he choose to sing as he performs? Do patterns of song behavior emerge from my observations?

Is she listening for: How many songs he knows? The quality of delivery? How long he sings?

Here is a list of his songs:

A=drink your tea (this is the classic Eastern Towhee song; the others are variations of it)
B=your tea
C=drink-drink your tea
D=drink your tea, your
E=drink your tea, tea (heard only once)
F=drink your
G=drink
H=your tea your

The male often sings variations of the song types listed above. The variations are slightly altered and, in the following record, are indicated by lower-case lettering (e.g., A vs a). Each of the following rows of songs indicates one minute’s worth of songs:

2/10/2012

Began 6:37am, calls & songs
Location: right front (RF) of house

1. aaaaaaaab
2. aabaaaabA
3. AAAAAAA
4. AAAAA
5. AAAAAAA
6. AAAaaaa <moved to LR> aaaa
7. aaaaaaabaa
8. aAAAAAaABD
9. AAaAAAAAAAD
10. AAa <moved to RR> AAaAa
11. ADADAAaaAAA
12. AAAAAAAAAa
13. CBAAcABABA
14. AbbbabBABA
15. ADAAAAAAA
16. AAAAAAAAA
17. ADBBBDAA
18. CAADA calls (3)
19. aaaaAA
20. AAAAbAAA
21. AAAAAAA
22. AAAAAAA
23. …
24. … moved right front, calls
25. … <end>

You can see from this sample which songs are preferred. But it does seem that he has other songs tucked into his tiny brain. For example, look at yesterday’s rendition:

2/11/2012
6:20am, RF of house

1. aaa
2. AAAAAaaaa
3. aaaaaaa calls
4. FF call F call
5. calls
6. FfAAAFG call
7. AFFAGAA
8. AAAAAAA
9. FAFAF
10. FABBBG call
11. calls AA
12. A calls
13. calls
14. calls
15. calls
16. calls aaa
17. aaaa <robins begin> fast calls
18. calls a
19. a calls <moved to neighbor’s house>
20. AAA call A calls A
21. AAAbbb
22. calls bbaa
23. abbAaaAAA
24. AaBFaA call
25. calls
26. bbbbAAAA
27. BAbbbaA
28. AAAAaAAaAAA
29. AAAAaABAbaba
30. baaabbaaaaa
31. aabaaaaaa
32. baabaabaaa
33. aaaaaaaabb
34. aacaaaaa
35. AAABAAAAA
36. AAAAAAAAA
37. AAabaaaaa
38. aaaadaaaaa
39. aaaaaab
40. dcaaaadaa
41. addaaaaba
42. aahaaaabh
43. hh <moved> call AAA
44. AAAAbAAAA
45. AAAAAAA
46. AAAAAAA

One thing I have learned: I will never hear the song of the male Towhee in same way again. I will be straining to listen for what she might be listening for. But I’ll have to use my imagination for that. 🙂

 

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About birdingatbond

I love birding! And I live near Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary, NC.
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One Response to He Sings, She Decides

  1. This is an amazing post Eddie. What patience and keen powers of auditory observation this must have taken! I will never see or hear a Towhee in the same way again as I will be listening so closely to which version of his song I am hearing:)

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