Out the Back Window - House Wren Songs

by: Jim in IA

Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 10:08:36 AM EDT

The first tiny House Wrens of the season returned last week. They have just started their singing. It will seem non-stop for the next six months.

Gerry DeWaghe 2006

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Jim in IA :: Out the Back Window - House Wren Songs
In the Spring 2012 issue of BirdScope from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an article intrigued me about the song of the House Wren. It claimed males can sing 600 times an hour. That claim caught my attention. On May 21, 2012, I made the same claim based on my own backyard observations. I counted songs for several timed intervals that day during lunch on the deck. That is 6,000 in a 10 hour day. That is 180,000 in a month of 30 days, or 1,080,000 wren calls in 6 months. I don't know how it does it. Such a little bird and so much sound. I am glad it can do it. They are one of the most vocal and welcome guests in our backyard. Another is the Gray Catbird.
The story goes on to describe an analysis of the frequency spectrum for the House Wren song. (Yes, of course, there is science stuff in this post. Isn't there always?)

Quoting the author, Becky Cramer...

Just the mechanics of how a half-ounce bird can make this much sound fascinate me. But as a graduate student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I also wonder why they do it. If a Swamp Sparrow can claim its turf with a simple trill; if an Eastern Phoebe can woo mates with a scratchy "fee-bee," then what is the extravagant fuss of a male House Wren all about? After five years of research I'm still not sure I know-the wrens' songs are just so complex-but I've learned a lot about sound and song in the process.

wrensongClick on the image at the right. It should take you to the article. Part way down the article you will find two audio recording controls, the same as pictured in this image. One plays the wren song at regular speed. The other plays it at one quarter speed for comparison. There is an amazing amount of frequency information packed into that song.

How does one extract that information for study?
The author uses the spectrogram. Time is on the horizontal axis. Frequency of sound is on the vertical axis. It samples a wren song one millisecond at a time. It show points where both sides of the bird's syrinx, or voicebox, sing different notes simultaneously. It displays the complexity of the ending trills. There, the wren sings precise repeats of several different phrases, all within a couple of seconds. Below is an example of a wren spectrogram from the article.


As you might imagine, some songs are harder to sing than others, and many scientists think birds respond to degree of difficulty in a rival's or potential mate's song. Perhaps it's crucial, even for an expert songster like the House Wren, to push their abilities to the absolute maximum, like jazz musicians trading solos.

The author decided to test the effect of trill performance. She played songs with different performance levels to male House Wrens in the wild expecting males to be less impressed with lower-performance trills and to act more aggressively toward them. She noted the trill performance of males that females chose as mates. Maybe the females would respond more favorably to higher-performance trills. House Wrens didn't seem to notice trill performance at all.
Perhaps these songs are too complex to assess even with this relatively sophisticated measurement. One thing's for sure, there are plenty of other difficult aspects to a House Wren's song. But as we keep at it, I'm confident we'll be better able to wring information out of the songs birds sing. And I'm sure we'll be using spectrograms to do it.

What's going on in your backyard?

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I hope you get to enjoy House Wrens in your backyard. (2.00 / 7)

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

Birds never go into my back yard anymore. (2.00 / 5)
Neither do I, for that matter, as it's a wasteland of orange volcanic gravel.

The only bird I see with any regularity is an enormous raven that likes to perch on the neighbor's roof right outside my kitchen window. I can see out that window from my desk, and sometimes it feels like the raven is watching me at the computer. Haven't seen it in a few days, however.

Their normal habitat seems to be closer to the beach. When I'm out in that neighborhood, just a ways down the street from where I live, I always see several lurking around along with the gulls.

There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Ravens and Crows are interesting birds. They are very smart. (2.00 / 4)
They also seem to enjoy playing. We had a Crow as a pet for a year when I was a kid. It was very funny to watch as it teased the cats. It would ride on top of the school bus hood for a 1/4 mile each morning. It rode on the tractor with Dad.

The other day on a walk, we encountered a large number of Grackles. It was like a scene from The Birds. They sat and watched us go by...spooky.

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

[ Parent ]
It's so wonderful to have the door open, (2.00 / 5)
to hear the birds and the sound of the breeze in the green-laced limbs.

The sun is out now, though there are high clouds. It's 74 out already, heading higher. I'm glad we had a good walk already.

Love anyway.

Birdsongs and the sound of earth movers in the distance. Music to my ears. (2.00 / 4)
I was very careful to not click Fail.

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

[ Parent ]
The red-bellied woodpecker is dancing from tree to tree. (2.00 / 4)

Love anyway.

Tipped, rec'd and linked. Nice to have wrens back. (2.00 / 5)

I love nature, science and my dogs.

It is fun to see and hear them again. (2.00 / 4)
Thanks for stopping by.

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

[ Parent ]
Well, I don't have a backyard but do love (2.00 / 5)
sightings when I can make them. City life is very different.  Live near the East River and have cormorants and, surprise, a loon though not sure which one. Also have some trees where I live where red tailed hawks hang out despite my please to go away. They can't help themselves, of course, but they have gotten squirrels and a few woodpeckers. The crows (I am always cheering them on) are always screeching at them. And, when I go see my doctors, I always look for peregrines who live on the ledges of the building. To look at birds and think of their tiny hearts breaks mine.

It can seem a cruel and painful world. But, all the creatures need to eat. (2.00 / 5)
I can just imagine the crows giving the hawks a rough time.

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

[ Parent ]
The pace of their life, and everything about it (2.00 / 3)
- including the songs - is so much faster than ours. Hard to imagine how much they live and do for what seems just a moment for us. (Ok it dates me, but I'm reminded of that episode of Star Trek with the accelerated people, whose conversations sounded like a quick buzz and who moved invisibly fast...though I was geeky enough even at the time to spot the timing problems in the story, ha).

I can barely distinguish the different parts of that wren call. But it sure is musical and beautiful, and joyous.

As a newcomer to the bird observation world, I'm wondering about why birds sing all summer long. If they sing to attract mates and establish pair bonds, wouldn't they stop singing once that was accomplished? Especially since it must be a tremendous energy drain? And possibly attract predators?

Thanks for pointing us in the direction of that article, and getting all sciency is quite ok!

I'm glad you stopped by. (2.00 / 3)

It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. - John Templeton

[ Parent ]

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