A Song for SEPTEMBER 18

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I am posting this page on September 18, 2023, in recognition of the 80th birthday of my friend Walter Bennett, and in honor of our shared interest in birds. I've been looking for an impetus to resume filling the calendar with day-pages, and I'm delighted to honor Walter's ascension into octogenarianism in this way.

As Walter and I and a bunch of other old guys try to meet annually in a blackwater swamp and do a little paddling, you would think today's bird would be a Prothonotary Warbler, or something of that sort. But the PROWs are not singing at this time of year, so I had to do a little searching in my catalogue for any bird singing on this date. Luckily I was in Japan on Walter's birthday in 1998, and whenever I leave my home range, I do my best to record birds regardless of the season. The birds I found in Hakuba on the 18th were pretty vocal, although they were calling more than singing. (More on that below.)

What we have here is at least three Willow Tits (Poecile montanus) giving their chickadee calls. They should sound familiar to most American nature-lovers, because Willow Tits are in fact chickadees, in the sense that they are in the genus Poecile. For a while, it was thought that Willow Tits and Black-capped Chickadees (4/17) might even be in the same species. But, the advent of techniques using genetic similarity to estimate genealogy has show that the seven North America species of "chickadees" are in one branch of the genus, and all the rest, which live in Eurasia and are called "tits," are in another. Still, they all look like chickadees and they all have chickadee calls. See 8/21, 7/31, and 4/19. In fact, a similar call is found throughout the Family Paridae. The Eurasian Blue Tit is a very distant relative, and it has such a call too (4/10).

All of these species use their chickadee calls in social situations, including in squabbles with neighbors. That's why we have so much vocalizing in this cut, and it culminated in "a little fight." The question is, did I incite it? This recording is a very unusual contribution to the Macaulay Library at Cornell; I hope the curators don't object to my posting it in this form. I have included my own whistling of various Willow Tit songs, which I did to stimulate vocalizing by the birds that were present. I was really only going for one pair, but sometimes an imitation or playback will stimulate one bird or a pair and then their agitation will stimulate their neighbors. I think that might have happened here.

Anyway, these vocalizations are calls not songs. For typical Poecile songs, see the Black-capped Chickadee on 4/17, and for a Poecile that has no song and sings with its chickadee call, see 4/19.


In writing the commentary for these posts I have made extensive use of the invaluable bioacoustic resources listed below. For phylogenetic information, I often start with a web search of "Phylogeny of x," where x is an avian genus, family, or order. That is a hit-or-miss proposition. A recently-released resource that makes phylogenetic queries more systematic is the Birds of the World website from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you follow the link and type the name of an avian family into the search box, you will be able to visit a home page for that family that presents the number of genera and species, and an illustration for each genus. If you subscribe, you will get more information. Also available to subscribers is the Birds of the World species accounts. Rolled out in 2020, this is currently an amalgam of the Birds of North America series, that was initiated by the American Ornithologists' Union around 1990, a recently-initiated online equivalent for Neotropical Birds, and the Handbook of Birds of the World series that was produced by Lynx Edicions, also beginning in the 90s. BNA has been hosted by the Lab of O for some time, and they recently added HBW to their portfolio. Especially useful for my purposes is the Systematics History subsection of the BNA accounts. EBird still has its separate species pages for all the birds of the world. These feature photos, recordings, range maps, and numerical eBird statistics, but little text. Overall, the abundance and availability of resources is astounding. Never has so much been available to so many for so little.

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Email: web at archmcallum.com

Nathan D. Pieplow. 2017. Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Nathan D. Pieplow. 2019. Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Donald Kroodsma. 2005. The Singing Life of Birds. Houghton Mifflin.

Unless otherwise specified, all text, photographs, graphs, sound recordings, and videos on this site © Dougald Archibald McCallum.