Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Oriole Oratorio

Listen - do you hear it? There’s a short, loud, cheerful song coming from a sycamore by the river – or maybe it’s from a willow at the nearby pond. 

It seems that the song should be immediately recognizable, but the pitches and patterns don’t quite fit any of the usual songs we hear in these areas.

Some birds have short, predictable songs like the two-note song of the Black-capped Chickadee. American Robins have melodies that can be readily recognized by their repetitive rhythmic patterns. Birds such as Song Sparrows and Yellow Warblers may have several melodic variations, but each is repeated numerous times before the singer changes to another variant that is also repeated until he changes songs once again. 

And then there are Baltimore Orioles.

       (Photo by Jerry Cannon)

There is no standard Baltimore Oriole song – no common pitch pattern, rhythm, or phrasing. It’s a mixture of call notes, song fragments, short songs, and occasionally some chatter. The songs are loud, resonant, and often quite tonal, but the variability between individuals is incredible. The only time I’ve heard two Baltimore Orioles sing the same song is when territorial males are close to each other.

Here are examples of Baltimore Oriole calls immediately followed by songs. The first is at the forested edge of an extensive, open wetland. You can see the single call notes in the sonogram below.

The second is from trees at the edge of a restored marsh in the Cleveland area. 


These examples are easier to isolate than in real life, as my recordings focus on one singing bird. In reality, orioles could be performing with other resonant singers whose melodies are in the same pitch range as their own songs. I’ll keep it simple for now, though, and save the final exam for the end of the post.

I’m interested in observing whether specific birds bring their unique songs to the same summer locations in subsequent years. Do neighboring males match each other in their song competitions? In the following year, do their offspring imitate what they heard from their fathers? Perhaps I’ll have a chance one day to make some comparative recordings at a few locations over time. 

But till then, here’s a Baltimore Oriole who arrived in our back yard in 2011, singing a song we had not heard before. We live in an old, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland that has tall trees, and he and his mate nested relatively close to our house.

Now here’s the Baltimore Oriole song we heard the following year: 2012. 

Although very similar, there are additional notes at the end as well as some occasional embellishments. The songs in both 2011 and 2012 began on exactly the same pitch, which added continuity.

The oriole melodies we heard prior to 2011 were completely different, and they really didn’t seem very accomplished. The rather monotonous song below from 2010 was actually a little better than a 2009 attempt so pathetic attempt I did not even record it. I noticed what editing these recordings, however, that the 2010 song actually began with two clear statements of the same pitch as the subsequent 2011 and 2012 songs. Could those two opening pitches have evolved into the 2011 song?

But that 2012 melody is certainly a splendid little tune, isn’t it? I periodically find myself walking around the house singing it. It outlines a major triad (or chord), which is a sound people typically find very pleasant and familiar. Here’s the basic melody in musical notation, and the oriole periodically adds extra notes, clicks, or chatter as desired. I've included the recording again so you can easily listen while looking at the pitches on the staff. 

We’ve heard this song annually from 2012 through this year (2017). It’s quite recognizable, and I haven’t heard an oriole sing it anywhere else. Are we still hearing the same Baltimore Oriole as in 2012? Perhaps it's his son? Did an unrelated bird learn this song because he heard it on our block?

I mentioned the major triad, which in the back yard oriole's song was B-D#-F#. I’ve been surprised by the number of Baltimore Oriole songs I’ve heard that sound like major key intervals or melodies. The preceding song was just one example. Here’s a very short song that is simply one melodic interval: a descending major 3rd from E down to C).

My all-time favorite Baltimore Oriole song is from Hell Hollow in NE Ohio’s Lake County Metroparks. I risked falling on the rocks as I scrambled up a dry stream bed to record him! Here's his unique and splendid melody:

Would you like to hear some additional songs that are especially tuneful? I found a few in the Audubon online field guide, and you can listen to them here.

The female Baltimore Oriole also sings. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site, "her shorter songs may be communications with her mate. Occasionally, mated pairs may sing a duet." You can listen to an assortment of songs at the All About Birds Baltimore Oriole song page

Baltimore Orioles aren’t the only orioles in NE Ohio. It seems that we have more Orchard Orioles each year. They’re a bit smaller than the Baltimores and the males are a much darker orange.

Their songs are longer, more complex, yet possibly easier to recognize because they're not quite as variable. Here‘s an example of an Orchard Oriole song: 

These beautiful orioles have gradually been expanding northward, becoming noticeably more common in our area during the past 30 years. I am so pleased to hear their delightful songs on a regular basis now! Orchard Oriole songs often end with an upward turn that suggests "cheery?", which you'll hear in some of this singer's phrases.

Let’s put our listening skills to a test with an Oriole Oratorio. I made this recording along the Chagrin River just north of Cleveland Metroparks’ South Chagrin Reservation in eastern Cuyahoga County. Both Oriole species were singing together in the trees along the river. 

Imagine that the speech-like recitative and simple melodic arioso sections are proclaimed by the Baltimore Oriole while the Orchard Oriole’s longer melodies are the arias. Unlike an actual oratorio, however, these singers don't always take turns and wait for each other to finish!

Can you tell which one is singing at which time? 

Look at the sonogram. See those repeated notes? Baltimore Oriole. Clusters of pitches that form a repeating unit? Orchard Oriole.  And what about the places that are shorter, but not just single repeated pitches? Baltimore Oriole. The spots that appear to be especially dense could be both singing at the same time.

Find a log, stump, or comfortable rock near a stream or pond and just listen for a while. You may hear Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Song Sparrows, and chances are good you’ll hear one or even both of our featured performers as well. No matter who’s singing, you’ll certainly enjoy the music and learn something new about bird behavior. Wherever you are, keep listening!

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