Transatlantic Songbird Showdown

Throughout, click hyper-linked bird names to hear songs. 

Who says that European birds are superior songsters to their American counterparts? Well, I’m afraid I do, for one. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, and some American birds make the most enchanting sounds. Take the beguilingly eerie Wood Thrush, or the three common mimics of the family Mimidae: Northern MockingbirdBrown Thrasher and Grey Catbird.

In general, however, for sheer musicality I’m cheering for the home team. By way of example, here are five head-to-head comparisons. One features a taxonomic pairing whereas the other four are linked in English name only, and so aren’t strictly fair. But hey – my blog, my rules!

American Robin vs Common Blackbird 

American Robin by Jessica Merz on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
American Robin by Jessica Merz on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Blackbirds have the sweetest and most melodious of voices. I love to lie awake early in the morning and hear their gentle chorus washing in through the window. Being woken by a chirpy American robin, cycling hurriedly through the only few notes it knows, is not nearly so charming. Their song is often transliterated as ‘cheer up, cheerily, cheer up’ – exactly the last thing you want to be told first thing in the morning!

 

 

Common Nightingale  vs Northern Cardinal (once known as ‘The Virginia Nightingale’)

I don’t actually rate nightingales as our best singers, but they’re certainly hard to beat for richness of voice. Listening to a cardinal this week, it occured to me that some phases of their song are reminiscent of nightingales, a rapid fire jup-jup-jup-jup-jup in particular. Then, I discovered they used to be called the ‘Virginia nightingale’, and I can almost see why. They’re not really in the same league but there’s a certainly quality to their song, a strong sweetness that’s as refreshing, in true American style, as a sweet glass of lemon ice tea. They’re also big, bright red, and abundantly common. A pretty great everyday bird.

Willow Warbler vs Yellow Warbler

Willow Warbler by Gail Hampshire on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Willow Warbler by Gail Hampshire on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
The new and old world warblers have little in common, taxonomically, so this is another name only comparison. As a general rule, the new world warblers – known as wood warblers – have exceedingly bright plumage but dull songs, whilst old world warblers have it in reverse, bright songs and dull plumage.

Yellow Warbler by Henry T McLin on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Yellow Warbler by Henry T McLin on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]

 

As with any rule it’s not always quite fair. Yellow warblers are bright yellow – exactly as their name suggests – willow warblers less so. Each has a thin, descending whistle of a song, but the willow warblers is more melodic. It’s close, but I think the rule holds with this pair.

Warbling Vireo vs Garden Warbler

As it happens some American birds warble away very nicely, but on the whole they’re not warblers. The warbling vireo sounds a bit like a garden warbler and doesn’t look totally dissimilar either, being a fairly drab olive brown bird with a slight pale area over the eye and fairly thick beak.

Eastern Meadowlark vs Eurasian Skylark

I’m not entirely sure why meadowlarks ended up called larks. Meadowlarks are completely unrelated to our larks and are actually in the same family as blackbirds and orioles, which are completely unrelated to our blackbirds and orioles. Clear?! Lark to me suggests something about song, and I have to say meadowlarks don’t cut it. Nothing particularly wrong with their little squeaky hinge of a song, but it’s got nothing at all on the endless ecstatic ululations of a skylark, or indeed the sweet descending lament of a woodlark.

Eastern Meadowlark by Matthew Paulson on Flickr [CC BY-ND2.0]. They might sound merely OK but they do look fantastic. On this trip I saw my first, alas it was not a great view.
Eastern Meadowlark by Matthew Paulson on Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]. They might sound merely OK but they do look fantastic. On this trip I saw my first, alas it was not a great view.

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