Why is a bird like a violin?

Don’t worry: this isn’t Lewis Carroll’s maddeningly unanswered riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” (Although, if you’re interested, it turns out that has been answered.) There is an answer to this one—two answers, in fact.

Answer 1: They both make sounds by vibrating strings.

Well, strings, feathers—they’re all the same, right? This Club-winged Manakin produces its courtship song by vibrating its wing feathers: they strike each other about 107 times per second.

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Seeing song: an interview with a partially deaf ornithologist who studies bird song

Alma Schrage is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and a research assistant in the Bowie lab in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Over several years I have watched her become an ornithologist. In this interview she discusses her research on bird song and how it has been affected—or not—by being partially deaf.

Alma in the field. Photo courtesy of Alma Schrage.

Alma in the field. Photo courtesy of Alma Schrage.

Why study bird song?

It’s interesting on several different levels. If you’re interested in cognition and behavior, bird song provides so many different things to study. You can also study how vocalizations tie in with genetics, morphology and such to help provide a fuller picture of the bird, or you can study the factors that drive development of bird song such as different acoustic environments, and selective forces on calls and songs.

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The mystery of the robot bear

It was well past dark when I first heard it: around 2 in the morning, it woke me in my tent. I lay awake for what felt like a long time, listening, trying—and failing—to classify the noise definitively as not a danger so I could go back to sleep. At the same time, I tried to think of what it sounded like, so that I could describe it the next morning. A large animal roar. A metal chair scraping across the floor. A death-metal chord. A train whistle.

Whatever it was, it neglected to devour me that night, and in the morning I was relieved to find that one of my field assistants had also been woken by the noise and shared my bewilderment. We agreed that it was primarily a cross between the bellow of some large mammal and the scrape of something mechanical, and so it was dubbed “the robot bear.”

The robot bear

The robot bear

The robot bear called most nights after that. Sometimes I thought it must be a noise of pain, or maybe rage—the tearing roughness in it sounded like strong emotion. Sometimes I was sure it was distant machinery; but we were surrounded by forest, and why would anyone be running machinery in the middle of the night?

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This is what evening in the field sounds like

One of the biggest changes for me in being in the field, aside from the living-in-a-tent-and-smacking-mosquitos aspects, is becoming intensely aware, all the time, of sound. I’m listening for singing juncos, to know where the territories are; for quietly cheeping juncos, who are usually foraging, to read their band combinations; for angry chipping juncos, whose nests are nearby; for juncos giving what I think of as the ba-boo boo boo call, affectionately greeting their mates. We live in the midst of the juncos, so I’m always listening. And so I hear all the other birds too.

In early evening, with the sun bright but the air beginning to chill, we hear the daytime birds still: the juncos’ songs, loud and strong but, dare I say, less than nuanced (click on the linked text, then click the forward-arrow play button, to hear the sound).

The strange, carrying complaints of the Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.

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Sounds and video from Cornell’s Macauley Library

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macauley Library of sounds and videos has been fully digitized and posted online for browsing for free by everyone. It is really fun to explore.

Ever wanted to know what an Oilbird sounds like? It sounds like this!

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Check out a colorful mantis shrimp swiveling its crazy eyes, then listen to it making sounds eerily like those of a drum set!

Go eye-level with Adelie Penguins, get close enough to a sea turtle to count the scales under its chin, then listen to a baby walrus ruff like a puppy!

Here is an article from the Lab of O – scroll to the end for links to: the earliest recording (a Song Sparrow from 1929); the sounds of an ostrich chick still in the egg; the haunting clarinet-like moan of the idri, a lemur; a bird of paradise apparently imitating a very melodious UFO; and a cute video of an American Dipper living up to its name by bobbing and dipping.

And then explore the library yourself! Hooray for open-access science.