The Backyard Birdsong Guide Western North America: A Guide to Listening

The Backyard Birdsong Guide Western North America: A Guide to Listening

Hardcover(Second Edition)

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With more than 300,000 copies already sold, Backyard Birdsongs is back by popular demand. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is proud to rerelease this widely acclaimed bird audio field guide series, from award-winning ornithologist and author Donald Kroodsma.

Suitable for beginning bird watchers, Backyard Birdsongs is an interactive handbook of birds and their songs. With a touch-button electronic module that contains common vocalizations of seventy-five species from across eastern and central North America, this volume offers a truly sensory way to identify and get to know local birds. Crisply detailed, scientifically accurate illustrations accompany each entry, and up-to-date range maps provide clear geographical reference points. With an introduction that will inspire readers to look out their windows and venture into the field, this unique book gives people of all ages an exciting entryway into the subtle art of using birdsong to identify birds.

This second edition includes a much-requested new Sound Track Index (to help make watching and listening to birds easier), and access to a free download of the Cornell Lab's own MERLIN® Bird ID App (in iTunes and Android stores). As with all Cornell Lab Publishing Group books, a portion of the net proceeds from the sale of Backyard Birdsongs supports projects at the Cornell Lab, including children’s educational and community programs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943645008
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 88,225
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Donald Kroodsma is professor emeritus of ornithology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a world-renowned authority on birdsongs. He is the author of The Singing Life of Birds (winner of the 2006 John Burroughs Medal Award and the American Birding Association's Robert Ridgway Distinguished Service Award for excellence in publications pertaining to field ornithology), The Backyard Birdsong Guides, and Birdsong by the Seasons.

Donald's work on bird song is legendary. In 2003 the American Ornithologists' Union called him the "reigning authority on the biology of avian vocal behavior." Kroodsma received his Ph.D. at Oregon State University and has traveled all over North and South America researching bird song. He is a Visiting Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Ornithologists' Union, and the Animal Behavior Society and has published hundreds of academic and popular articles. He lives in Hatfield, MA.

Larry McQueen painted the popular Project FeederWatch eastern and western Common Feeder Birds posters. Bird images from those posters and from other sources, including three original watercolor paintings done for BirdSource's Warbler Watch site, are used throughout both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's web site and the BirdSource web site. Larry's work is widely known and respected, having appeared widely in calendars, catalogs, and magazines, including the Lab's own Living Bird. He has illustrated for many books, such as The Audubon Master Guide to Birding, and you'll find his images in a number of field guides.

Originally from Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, Larry earned degrees from Idaho State University and the University of Oregon. After a career in fish and game management and then as a graphic designer, he started painting full-time in 1977. He now lives in Eugene, OR.

Jon Janosik was born in Connecticut in 1941. Living with my grandparents on their Trumbull farm in my formative years, he became enchanted with wild birds, nature and Biology. He became acquainted with Roger Tory Peterson and gained many early skills in the field while attending Peterson's local bird walks.

Jon's work has been featured in such books as Field Guide to North American Birds (National Geographic Society), Birds of the Ligonier Valley (Carnegie Museum) ,The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, An Audubon Handbook, Western/Eastern Birds, and Book of North American Birds (Readers Digest Books). Jon's works have been exhibited in numerous museums, and galleries including: Kobe Museum, Sanda Japan; The Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC; Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum-Wausau WI; Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh PA; Moji Art Galley, Kitakyushu Japan; Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh (Birds in Art), Kirritappu Wetland Center, Hokkaido, Japan and the British Museum, London England.

Read an Excerpt



As you begin to get to know the seventy-five birds in this book, it's helpful to understand how they are organized. Generally, this guide and most others are organized in taxonomic order, which reflects the order in which the species evolved. Ornithologists recognize two main groups of birds — the "non-passerines" and the "passerines"; we treat the nonpasserine birds first because they are the modern descendents of the first birds to split off the evolutionary tree.

HERE'S A LITTLE BACKGROUND: THE FIRST BIRDS EMERGED from the reptile lineage about a hundred fifty million years ago, and although many of those ancient avian beginnings became dead ends, one group survived to become today's birds, a group that now seems most likely to have had its roots in the dinosaurs. Indeed, recently discovered fossils of dinosaurs with feather coverings help confirm that birds are modern dinosaurs with feathers.

But we classify modern birds into the class Aves, distinguishing them from the dinosaurs' class Reptilia and recognizing about ten thousand bird species worldwide in about thirty major groups. Some of the first birds to split from the lineage leading to modern birds were ostriches, emus, and their relatives, none of which occur in North America. The next two groups to have split off are believed to be the waterfowl (ducks and geese) and the gallinaceous birds (quail and other chicken-like birds), so they are listed first in this book.

Of the seventy-five birds treated in this book, the last fifty-nine belong to the wildly successful and more recently evolved group of birds called "passerines" (see pages 56–57 for an overview). Passerines are often called "the perching birds," though other birds also perch, of course; ornithologists recognize them as a group because of the unique structure of their toes and leg bones. The first sixteen species in this book belong to a set of other groups typically referred to collectively as "non-passerines." Among the non-passerine groups represented in this first section of the book are the ducks and geese, quail, grebes, hawks, rails, cranes, shorebirds, doves, owls, nightjars, hummingbirds, kingfishers, and woodpeckers — representatives from thirteen of the world's non-passerine groups.

Vocalizations of these non-passerines include some of the best-known and favorite sounds in our avian soundscape. What child doesn't know how to quack like a duck or hoot like an owl, and the asthmatic, raw-power scream of a Red-tailed Hawk is dubbed into almost every movie wilderness scene. Among fifteen of the sixteen species represented here, it is believed that the sounds that they use are inherited from their parents, with the instructions on how to use the appropriate sounds somehow encoded in the genetic material. The one fascinating exception is the hummingbird.

The vocalizations of these non-passerine examples illustrate well the ways in which sounds are important in the daily lives of these diverse birds. Come listen in a whole new way to the quacking of ducks and honking of geese, to how a snipe sings with its tail and a nightjar with its wings, to how woodpeckers "sing" by ramming their bills into trees.



(Branta canadensis)

* Summer

* Year-round

* Winter

HABITAT: Wetlands, from the featureless tundra, prairie potholes, lake-shores, beaver ponds, and coastal marshes to protected urban ponds

DESCRIPTION: Most common and familiar of all geese, with black head and long black neck, white chin strap from ear to ear, and dusky breast; western birds tend to be darker, northern breeders smaller

What better sound to mark the changing of the seasons than the honking of geese high overhead; we all mark the moment by maneuvering to get a glimpse of the undulating, V-shaped ribbon of geese heading north in spring or south in the fall.

Listen carefully to that flock overhead, or better yet, get much closer to some breeding or overwintering geese in a marsh or pond to hear the distinctly lower honk of the male and the higher hrink of the female. Up close, you also hear how each call actually begins with a harsh, lower, atonal note, followed by the more musical ending: agh-honk, agh-hrink.

What fun to listen to these geese at close range. In spring, when a pair establishes its breeding territory and interacts with neighboring pairs, they perform much coordinated posturing and duetting, the male and female often alternating their calls so rapidly and precisely that it sounds like one bird: agh-honk agh-hrink agh-honk agh-hrink. When calling alone, the male sometimes beautifully draws out that lower note, to aaghh-honk. And in wintering flocks it is captivating to hear the murmur of the crowd, and to hear how parents and their offspring talk to one another, defending the family from others as they stay together.

Geese from certain populations are especially small; because of their slight bodies, reduced lung capacity, and shorter necks, the deep, resonant honking is more of a yipping or cackling. These smaller geese, closely related to the Canada Goose but now actually recognized as a separate species, the Cackling Goose, breed from northern Canada to Alaska, wintering from Texas to the Pacific.


(Anas platyrhynchos)

* Summer

* Year-round

* Winter

HABITAT: Various wetlands, including wooded swamps, marshes, and ponds; also common in farmlands and urban parks

DESCRIPTION: Large "dabbling duck" (tips its bottom up to feed underwater); male with iridescent-green head, rusty chest, gray body, and black tail curl, and female mottled brown; both sexes have blue wing patch with white borders

Quack! One word says it all. Who doesn't recognize the quack of a Mallard? Yet, intriguingly, the female's voice is the one by which we know this most widespread North American duck. Only she quacks — the males do not. Sometimes she gives a simple, persistent series of monotone quacks, as when she's selecting a nest site during courtship. More commonly, we hear a striking "decrescendo call," two to ten quacks with an accent on the first or second and then trailing off, successive notes becoming softer and shorter: qua QUACK QUACK quack qua. ... It's contagious, too: one female calling in a flock and others responding, each seemingly reaffirming contact with her mate.

The male's calls are seldom heard by the casual birder, as they're far softer: a reedy, rasping rab or a double rabrab, given in a variety of circumstances, such as when courting or greeting a female, or when seemingly alarmed.

Settle in next to a flock of Mallards and listen to the nuances of these basic calls. Or listen to the tender, affectionate clucking sounds of a mother with her ducklings and you'll come to know a whole new Mallard.

But the Mallard is only one of many ducks worthy of your ear! The common sound of the Wood Duck, that loud, squealing, rising oo-eek, is also given by the female, not the male, and her spring courtship sounds are wonderfully complex. Males of some species do have a striking "song," such as a courting Ruddy Duck. Explore these other species and you'll start to get a sense of the shared characteristics of the duck family.



(Callipepla californica)

* Year-round

HABITAT: Chaparral, sagebrush scrub, and other brushy areas; parks, suburban areas with enough cover

DESCRIPTION: Male boldly patterned black-and-white head with yellowish forehead, brown crown with emergent comma-shaped plume; elegant flecks, scales, and streaks over grayish body; female duller and browner, head brownish-gray

This quail is the beloved wild chicken of the West Coast, whose cute little head nods with each step it takes. Hear the sound for which it's best known, the loud, repeated chi-CAH-go; the middle note is highest and loudest, and all three notes are rich in harmonics, lasting slightly less than a second overall. A more appropriate mnemonic might be where-ARE-you?, as this call is the "assembly call," heard throughout the year when separated birds seek to rejoin one another or the covey (i.e., flock). It's also called the "rally call," as birds in coveys use it when they begin moving, the calls presumably coordinating their movement.

One of the first signs that a winter covey is soon to disperse is the persistent calling by unmated males: a loud, repeated, relatively long single CAAAH of the same airy, whistled quality as the CAH in chi-CAH-go. He stands erect in some prominent place, his head up and thrown back with each announcement that he is available.

A paired male and female often call together, especially when they've been separated. She calls loudly chi-CAH-go; he superimposes a sharply descending series of squill notes that he also uses in aggressive situations.

And what a wonderful variety of clucks and cackles and grunts can be heard from these birds throughout their daily lives, such as when a courting pair feed together.

If you're in the desert Southwest, check out the Gambel's Quail, too, which is similar both in looks and in many of its calls to the closely related California Quail.



(Aechmophorus occidentalis, A. clarkii)

* Summer

* Year-round

* Winter

HABITAT: Freshwater lakes and marshes, especially those with extensive open water bordered by emergent vegetation

DESCRIPTION: Graceful and elegant, look-alike "swan grebes": black above, white below, slender body with long neck and javelin bill; black crown that extends below bright red eyes on Western, but not on Clark's

These two species are so similar to each other that they had ornithologists fooled into thinking they were one species until the mid-1980s. But see the subtle difference in the head pattern and how the scarlet eye of the Western is surrounded by black, the Clark's surrounded by white. Listen, too, to their harsh, rolling calls: The Western gives a double call, cree-creet, with a noticeable pause in the middle, the Clark's just a single call with no pause, creeet. The female in both species calls, too, at a slightly higher frequency than the male. Although their calls are so similar, each species knows its own voice well, as they respond only to calls of their own species. But when a meddling ornithologist adds an artificial space into a recorded Clark's call, transforming the creeet to cre-eet, then the Westerns respond to it. There's no doubt in their minds as to who is who.

And what energetic and elaborate courtship ceremonies! Most impressive is their "rushing" ritual. It typically begins with two birds of either sex calling (cree-creet for Western, creeet for Clark's) then swimming toward each other. With bills pointing at each other, crests raised, throats bulging, tails cocked, they alternately utter a loud, harsh, ratcheting trill, after which both rise up on the water and run across its surface, the rapid foot movements making a loud pattering noise. Then they may dive together or swim about each other alertly. A pair may dive for some spray of vegetation, coming up and rising high in the water, breast to breast and necks outstretched as if comparing their catches, then disposing of the vegetation and perhaps preening or swimming about as if this spectacular water dance had, in fact, never happened.



(Buteo jamaicensis)

* Summer

* Year-round

HABITAT: Open country with some trees or high perches, including areas such as agricultural fields, plains, urban parklands, and scrub desert

DESCRIPTION: Robust and broad-winged, typically with reddish tail above and white chest with dark belly band; confusing variation in some populations, with lighter-colored birds even having white tails

These hawks may be difficult to identify because of their varied plumages, but they're easy to pick out by that feeling of raw power once they speak: a two- to three-second-long shrill and hoarse asthmatic squeal, slurred downward with several subtle but abrupt shifts in pitch: kee-eeee-arrr. So irresistible is the energy in this hair-raising scream that Hollywood has adopted it as the symbol of power in the wilderness. No matter what the setting, no matter what large hawk-like bird has just appeared on screen, the red-tail's kee-eeee-arrr is assigned to the scene.

In spring, watch and listen as male and female court. They circle high over their territory, the male ascending above her, and after a series of dives and ascents he slowly approaches her from above, briefly touching or grasping her with his talons, while both male and female scream kee-eeee-arrr. During these aerial antics, another sound is often repeated rapidly, sounding much like chwirk, given at the rate of about one per second.

In territorial squabbles with neighbors, red-tails dive steeply from high over their own territory and then check their descent, only to shoot upward again, repeatedly screaming kee-eeee-arrr. With each kee-eeee-arrr, the duration varies, as does the pitch; the quality varies, too, with some sounding rather shrill and pure but others sounding more like a hissy steamboat whistle. Even youngsters in the nest utter a softer version of this adult kee-eeee-arrr, suggesting that this scream is inborn, not learned from adults.



(Fulica americana)

* Summer

* Year-round

* inter

HABITAT: Freshwater ponds, lakes, marshes, and swamps with open water and heavy stands of emergent vegetation in water along shoreline

DESCRIPTION: Chicken-like marsh bird that nods its head while swimming or walking; black head and neck and dark-gray body contrast sharply with white bill and white outer stripes beneath tail

From deep in the cattails or bulrushes, the source often unseen, arises the most wonderful variety of grunts, cackles, clucks, croaks, coughs, moans, whines, squawks, and chatters. You can be sure that the continuous racket coming from the marshes is almost certainly the coot. Adding to the variety of sounds they make is a tonal difference between the calls of the two sexes; his calls tend to be sharp and clear, hers lower and more nasal.

One of the coots' most common sounds is a series of simple high, clear notes (puhk) from the male, or a more nasal note from the female (punk), as they communicate with each other or with their young.

Much of the noise, though, is from the highly aggressive males defending their small territories along the water's edge. To warn off other males, he calls a double note, highly variable, such as puhk-ut, and she sometimes joins in with a more nasal punk-unk. He "crows" loudly at the edge of his territory, cook-uh-ook, as if challenging the neighbor to a duel, while she often responds to her mate or a distant male with a hollow kaw-paw. After successfully defending the territory against an invader, he crows plaintively, puhk-cowah, she more simply cooah.

They're wonderfully vocal, but they also splash about, sometimes half swimming and half flying across the water while rushing at an opponent, other times splattering along the surface as they gain enough speed to become airborne, until finally in flight their big feet dangle out behind their short tails.

In early spring when territories are being settled and females courted, settle in at a marsh's edge for an audiovisual feast you'll long remember.



(Grus canadensis)

* Summer

* Year-round

* Winter

HABITAT: Diverse wetland types, but typically marshes or bogs that are fairly open, surrounded by forest, and far from humans

DESCRIPTION: Stately: four feet tall, long-legged and long-necked, with wingspan of six feet; all gray except for white cheek and chin and red cap of bare skin; body may be stained red

These remarkable creatures are honorary backyard birds: They live mostly in far northern wetlands and tundra, but their sounds are so extraordinary that almost everyone remembers where they were first heard. Distant listeners may hear a rattling or croaking from migrants flying high overhead, but those who have witnessed these cranes up close hear something far more magnificent.

It's a deep, rich, resonant, pulsating sound, loud beyond belief, that arises deep in the lungs, the air then hurtling through the voice box and into the extra-long windpipe that coils into the breastbone; now amplified and enriched with harmonics, the sound waves rip from the opened bill and into the world, radiating out a mile or more in all directions. Cranes bugle, trumpet, or some magnificent combination of the two.

Both male and female partners trumpet together during migration and on the breeding grounds; his call is noticeably lower than hers, but she follows him so quickly it sounds as if they are one, with a rolling, trumpeting sound that begins low and ends high. They are, in fact, one, as cranes mate for life, a life that may extend to twenty years. Families stay together, too; young birds (called "colts") remain with their parents for about nine months through their first winter and into the next spring, not yet bugling but instead bleating a tentative, high-pitched whistle.

During March, cranes and crane lovers converge on the Platte River in Nebraska, the cranes to feed and strengthen for the migratory trip north, the crane lovers to hear and see half a million of these cranes bugle and trumpet and bleat and dance.


Excerpted from "The Backyard Birdsong Guide: Western North America"
by .
Copyright © 2008 becker&mayer! LLC.
Excerpted by permission of The Cornell Lab Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Why Birds Sing 10
Where Each Bird Gets His Song 12
Songs and Calls 14
The Practice of Deep Listening 15
Where to Begin 21
How to Use the Audio Player 22

Ducks and Geese (Anatidae) 26 Canada Goose
Ducks and Geese (Anatidae) 28 Mallard
New World Quail (Odontophoridae) 30 California Quail
Grebes (Podicipedidae) Western and Clark's Grebes
Hawks and Eagles (Accipitridae) 34 Red-tailed Hawk
Rails, Gallinules, and Coots (Rallidae) 36 American Coot
Cranes (Gruidae) 38 Sandhill Crane
Plovers (Charadriidae) 40 Killdeer
Sandpipers and Phalaropes (Scolopacidae) 42 Wilson’s Snipe
Pigeons and Doves (Columbidae) 44 Mourning Dove
Owls (Strigidae) 46 Great Horned Owl
Goatsuckers (Caprimulgidae) 48 Common Nighthawk
Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) 50 Anna’s Hummingbird
Kingfishers (Alcedinidae) 52 Belted Kingfisher
Woodpeckers (Picidae) 54 Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers (Picidae) 56 Northern Flicker

Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) 60 Western Wood-Pewee 62 Black Phoebe
Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) 64 Western Kingbird
Vireos (Vireonidae) 66 Hutton’s Vireo
Jays and Crows (Corvidae) 68 Steller’s Jay
Jays and Crows (Corvidae) 70 Western Scrub-Jay
Jays and Crows (Corvidae) 72 American Crow
Jays and Crows (Corvidae) 74 Common Raven
Larks (Alaudidae) 76 Horned Lark
Swallows (Hirundinidae) 78 Violet-green Swallow
Chickadees and Titmice (Paridae) 80 Mountain Chickadee
Chickadees and Titmice (Paridae)82 Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chickadees and Titmice (Paridae)84 Oak and Juniper Titmice
Nuthatches (Sittidae) 86 White-breasted Nuthatch
Wrens (Troglodytidae) 88 Bewick’s Wren
Wrens (Troglodytidae) 90 House Wren
Wrens (Troglodytidae) 92 Winter Wren
Wrens (Troglodytidae) 94 Marsh Wren
Kinglets (Regulidae) 96 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Thrushes (Turdidae) 98 American Robin
Thrushes (Turdidae) 100 Western Bluebird
Thrushes (Turdidae) 102 Swainson’s Thrush
Thrushes (Turdidae) 104 Hermit Thrush
Babblers (Timaliidae) 106 Wrentit
Mockingbirds and Thrashers (Mimidae) 108 Northern Mockingbird
Mockingbirds and Thrashers (Mimidae) 110 California Thrasher
Starlings (Sturnidae) 112 European Starling
Waxwings (Bombycillidae) 114 Cedar Waxwing
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 116 Orange-crowned Warbler
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 118 Yellow Warbler
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 120 MacGillivray’s Warbler
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 122 Common Yellowthroat
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 124 Wilson’s Warbler
Wood-Warblers (Parulidae) 126 Yellow-breasted Chat
Tanagers (Thraupidae) 128 Western Tanager
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 130 Spotted Towhee
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 132 California Towhee
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 134 Chipping Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 136 Brewer’s Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 138 Lark Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 140 Lark Bunting
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 142 Savannah Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 144 Fox Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 146 Song Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 148 White-crowned Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 150 Golden-crowned Sparrow
Sparrows (Emberizidae) 152 Dark-eyed Junco
Cardinals, Grosbeaks, and Buntings (Cardinalidae) 154 Black-headed Grosbeak
Cardinals, Grosbeaks, and Buntings (Cardinalidae) 156 Lazuli Bunting
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 158 Red-winged Blackbird
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 160 Western Meadowlark
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 162 Yellow-headed Blackbird
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 164 Great-tailed Grackle
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 166 Brown-headed Cowbird
Blackbirds (Icteridae) 168 Bullock’s Oriole
Finches (Fringillidae) 170 House Finch
Finches (Fringillidae) 172 American Goldfinch
Finches (Fringillidae) 174 Lesser Goldfinch

More Fun with Birdsong 178
Additional Listening and Reading Sources 180
References 181
Illustration Credits 182
Recording Credits 182
About the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 183
About the Artists 184
About the Author 185
Index 186
Acknowledgments 192

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