Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Creative Ornamentation

Trills. They’re common musical ornaments, and sometimes they can be decorated even more with little additions at the end. This is nothing unusual in baroque and classical music, but certainly not something one would expect when the singers are…Dark-eyed Juncos.

Here’s an example of typical Junco songs – the lovely, jingling trills we typically here when these winter residents prepare to leave our Ohio back yards and parks in April. There are two birds singing, and you'll hear that one is singing with a faster trill than the other. You'll see on the sonogram that the two birds' songs look quite different - differences beyond the trill speed and general tone quality we may be able to perceive.

Remember the post I did on trills a while back? I recorded these two birds at the Holden Arboretum in Lake County on March 7th, and no trilling Pine Warblers or Chipping Sparrows would be singing in NE Ohio at that time.

Juncos that winter farther south migrate north through Ohio in the early spring, briefly joining those that overwintered with us. We hear a lot of jingling Junco trills for a short while, and then they all move to their breeding territories. But it’s a little different in the far NE corner of Ohio, and I’m learning that it’s even more different than I realized. 

Juncos nest in Lake, Geauga, Ashtabula, extreme eastern Cuyahoga, and parts of Summit County. During my participation in the second Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, we found that Juncos were actually quite common nesters. They often have two broods, and Junco fledglings can be seen in June and later. 

Also, they are nesting close to people as well as in the expected hemlock ravines. They can be found nesting next to houses and other human structures, and even in hanging baskets! Geauga Park District naturalist Linda Gilbert took this photo of a nesting Junco at a shelter on her Geauga County property. 

So..back to the question of the trills. Juncos nesting outside of their typical hemlock ravines means that from later spring into the summer, it’s actually possible that a singing Junco could be in the same habitat as a singing Chipping Sparrow and a singing Pine Warbler. Normally, habitat and season should make this relatively easy to sort out, but not anymore in this corner of the state!

Finally, some of these Juncos are singing more complex songs than the expected Junco trills. This adds one more challenge for a listener to negotiate.

The first time I heard an unusual Junco song, I recorded it simply because it was rather curious. The location was Cottonwood Hollow, which is one of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s beautiful nature preserves. This preserve is in eastern Lake County, and here’s the song: 

Did you catch that interesting little turn at the end of each song? 


The Junco sang exactly this song over and over. You'll hear something similar - but even more interesting - later in this post.

I recorded that song back in early July, 2012. I didn’t think any more of it till this year, when I was encouraged by two of my naturalist friends to record Juncos they’d heard singing unusually complex songs. 

Linda Gilbert thought I should go to the Affelder House, which is part of The West Woods in the Geauga Park District.  She’s heard unusual Junco songs there in previous years. (You can find a photo of the Affelder House under "facilities" at The West Woods link).

Almost immediately after arriving, I heard this:

Did you hear - and see - that emphatic little ending? He sang this song quite a bit, but he also switched to a straight trill. Both song types are in his repertoire. 

I saw Juncos on the ground in the woods by the small parking area gathering nesting material. They were also in the woods next to the building. Still, I had to be sure what I was hearing was indeed a Junco. There's a stand of pines that could possibly have a singing Pine Warbler, and I've seen and heard Chipping Sparrows in similar parking areas at The West Woods. 

It was no small challenge in the shady woods, but I did confirm the singer.  

He and his mate appeared to be gathering nesting material for a second brood. There was another Junco even closer to the building, and he and his mate were also gathering nesting material. The second male's song was a straightforward trill, but it had a different tone quality from the first bird.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of Junco 1's trill and Junco 2's trill. They actually look quite different!

Both Juncos were singing their trill songs until the second Junco invaded the first Junco’s territory. The first Junco immediately switched to the song with the emphatic ending! He continued to do so until the situation calmed down, then eventually switched back to his trill. Even so, a closer look at the sonogram shows a bit of emphasis remains at the end of each trill.

The Junco songs were even more intriguing when I went to Kirtland in Lake County, which is 10 miles north of the Affelder House. This location is west of the Junco I recorded at Cottonwood Hollow, and there are some similarities in the songs.

Haans Petruschke has Juncos nesting all around his home in Kirtland, Ohio, and he knows these birds extremely well. He’s also very knowledgeable about the birds at the nearby Holden Arboretum, where he's been doing a breeding bird survey for years. 

He told me about the unusual songs the Juncos sing near his home. He routinely hears these songs elsewhere in area and they remind him of a Nashville or Tennessee Warbler. He knew they were Juncos - he'd seen them singing - and he eventually was able to get a short video clip for documentation.

I very much wanted to get recordings of this song and look at a sonogram, so I made several trips there to learn about this group of Juncos. The first Junco brood had already fledged, and the Juncos were starting on their second brood. Here’s  a photo he took of one of the fledglings at his home:

Recording took patience and persistence. The birds wouldn’t necessarily sing just because they saw my car pull in to the driveway and they weren’t always close enough to get the recordings I wanted. Fortunately for me, Haans introduced me to two of his neighbors who were happy to allow me to record on their properties as well as his own.

This is the song – isn’t it fabulous?

Can you see from the sonogram that there appears to be two different trills fused into a single song?  (Musicians, do you see how the first part is usually a group of 7 in kind of a 3+2+2?) Take a closer look at a single song:

I occasionally heard at least one of the birds split the song apart and sing one or the other trill separately, which you may have noticed in the recording. This really emphasized the two-trill nature of the composite song.

It wasn't just one bird, either – I could hear four different individuals singing this song! I was able to record two of the other Juncos, and the song pattern was the same.

In addition, these birds occasionally sing the standard single-trill Junco song. If you listen closely to the longer recording below, you’ll hear a Junco change between two different single trills and two different double trills.

Haans wrote a very interesting article on the Juncos in NE Ohio; it appeared in the Ohio Ornithological Society’s Summer, 2013 issue of the Ohio Cardinal. I encourage you to scroll down to page 156 to find his fascinating observations in Nesting Juncos in Ohio. 

I hope to hear from other NE Ohio residents about unusual Junco songs, and perhaps I'll be able to expand my collection of Junco songs from this area. Are there Juncos in Cuyahoga and Summit County that sing these song variants?  Does anyone know if NE Ohio's nesting Juncos are year-round residents or if they winter farther south?

If you'd like to learn more about Juncos across the US, there's a very informative educational DVD from Indiana University and the National Science Foundation called The Ordinary, Extraordinary Junco. I'm going to watch this again to see if there's any information I may have missed about eastern song variants and year-round residents.

I'll close this post with a longer recording of one of the Kirtland Juncos singing multiple song types. Why? Because these are beautiful songs from a reclusive little singer, and I'm very happy to have learned about them.


  1. What a fascinating and absolutely captivating post! Stunning photos, too.

  2. What an enchanting post. The music is thrilling to hear.