Sunday, March 12, 2017

Virtuoso Performance of a Titmouse Song Cycle

February 22nd. By the time I got to the Holden Arboretum after I was finished at school, it already seemed so late. It was cloudy, breezy, hardly anyone was singing….but since I was already there, I decided to walk back where the woodland edge opens into a marshy area called “Buttonbush Bog.” There’s a bird feeding station, observation deck, and kids’ nature play area, and there’s usually activity around the feeders.

I didn’t hear much bird song as I walked, but once I got back to the woods, I heard a Tufted Titmouse singing like it was late March or early April. What a delight it was to hear him, as Titmice hadn't been singing for months! I love how their loud, defiant-sounding songs echo through the woods like an affirmation of Spring’s inevitability.

Anyone who’s been in one of my bird song programs or classes knows that I emphasize the extensive repertoire of Titmice. I wish I had known this back when I first started learning bird songs.

Being a musician, I’d take a small notebook with me, draw staff lines, and write down what I heard when it was possible to do so. I found that I had accumulated a collection of short, loud, repetitious songs that were easy to notate, but impossible to identify. I’d listen to audio field guides, but they didn’t have the songs I’d written down.  I’d get discouraged or just angry. Why did I have a notebook of short, clear songs that should have been easily identifiable but were not represented in the sources I’d consulted?

I finally got mad and threw the notebook away. In retrospect. I imagine it was filled with songs of Tufted Titmice.

Now that I’ve recorded many different Titmouse songs, I understand that they have extensive repertoires and can switch melodies in a heartbeat. Knowing this, I pay close attention to when and why these changes might occur.

As I continued walking toward the Buttonbush Bog marsh area, I heard another Titmouse. His song was quite different – in fact, one might think it couldn’t possibly be a Titmouse. He sounded so hoarse!

The tone quality may have been different, but the song was otherwise short, repetitious, loud, and easy to imitate. Definitely a Titmouse.

His hoarse, raspy song continued for 5-6 minutes, sounding increasingly agitated and loud. Suddenly, he switched to a short, clear song tconsisting of double pitches with additional very high notes.

Two minutes later, he began yet another song without even pausing between them. I could describe the new song as the “single pitch slurred song,” meaning the bird slides up to the first pitch.

This new variation continued without pause for four minutes, then changed yet again! Now his song was a double-note pattern with very high pitches interspersed within the series. He then returned to the single pitch song. All these melodies were being broadcast from the same tree at the edge of the marsh. Apparently, this was a good venue for an impressive virtuoso performance!

After another four minutes, the musical variations ended with the Titmouse scolding as though deeply aggravated.  

Five minutes of scolding terminated in a loud, descending scream that marked the beginning of yet another new song.

This is where it really got interesting for me. The new song was an ascending major (or sometimes minor) third mixed with the kinds of very high pitches I’d heard before. Now, however, I began to hear a possible relationship between the melodic pitches and the high notes.

Here’s what he was singing, and I’ll crop it a little more so you can see the pitches and the high notes in relation to each other. Their rhythm is the same. It’s like a melody with two different parts answering each other from their respective ranges. Look at the back-and-forth on the sonogram.


I’ll crop in even farther so you can see more detail.

I thought at the time that I was hearing some kind of imitative relationship, and I was excited to actually hear and see it in closer detail at my computer.

I also thought that the song was related to the hoarse, raspy song that I first heard when I arrived at his wooded corner of the marsh edge. It IS related – it’s essentially the same song with a different tone quality.

When I teach classes on bird song identification, I break down songs into musical elements of pitch, rhythm, phrases, and tone quality. I used every one of these as I listened to this Titmouse, and he used all of this in proclaiming his great importance and his territory.

And you know what? If I’d just said that it was too late in the day, too cloudy and breezy, no one was singing and I should just turn around and go back to my car…I would have missed this entire performance!


  1. Amazing. Now I know what I've been hearing. I thought I heard a titmouseseses followed by a different bird. It may have been the same singer. Thanks!

  2. Excellent synopsis of the wide range of variation in titmice vocalizations!

  3. Wonderful. I am so glad that you did perceiver and got this recordings. Indeed, what a performance.