Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bobolinks: I know where you nest by the songs you sing


There are three locations in NE Ohio’s Chagrin River watershed where I spend time with one of my very favorite birds: the Bobolink.  I noticed two or three years ago that the Bobolinks at each meadow sing songs unique to that particular place.  I could have told you my location with my eyes closed simply by the Bobolink songs I heard.
I found this to be quite interesting.  I was once again standing at the intersection of music theory and natural history, and it was time for a little bit of analysis.  I think you’re going to be able to follow along with me, so let’s listen to the Bobolinks at three different meadows. 

Here we are at the first of the meadows, and it is one that I’m just getting to know.  This is South Russell Village Park, which is just outside of Chagrin Falls.  It’s in Geauga, County, but very close to the eastern edge of Cuyahoga County.   The first time I went there, this is what I heard:

It was wonderful – and I quickly noticed that there were some distinctive patterns in the Bobolink songs.  I’ve isolated these patterns so you can hear exactly what they are before you go back to the first recording.   The first one that caught my attention was rather like a triplet – not a rhythmically precise one, but unusual enough to stand out when it occurs in the song.   I had heard this figure only one other place: the Geauga Park District’s Frohring Meadows, which is adjacent to South Russell Village Park. 

In addition to what I loosely call the triplet pattern, there are two little introductory patterns that can be used in the songs or even just as calls.  When combined with the tripet pattern,. they create songs that I find readily identifiable as the South Russell/Frohring Meadows Bobolink song.  The next recording includes all three patterns, and each one is played twice.

OK, got that?  You can always listen to it again, and if you try to sing along with these song elements – so much the better!  It will help you remember what you heard.  Now, here are some shorter songs that demonstrate those two different introductory patterns.  You’ll hear the triplet figure in both songs. 

Next we’re going to head just a bit west across the county line into Cuyahoga County, and then north to the Case Western Reserve University Farm in Hunting Valley  - about a nine mile trip.  Dr. Ana Locci, the CWRU Farm Director,  has developed and managed nesting habitat for Bobolinks, and I’ve been visiting them there for years.  I check their meadow frequently at the beginning of each May so I can welcome them back when they first return.

This group of Bobolinks has a signature three-note pattern that begins most of their songs.  My recording will isolate the characteristic three-note pattern used year after year by all the Bobolinks at the Farm. The recording continues with two of the shorter songs the males sing when they arrive.  They later combine these songs into longer arias as they fly in showy circles above their territories.  

Now it’s time to head about 15 miles north and east.  Our destination is the Holden Arboretum in Lake County (north of Geauga County and east of northern Cuyahoga County).  Holden also has a large meadow area that is home to Bobolinks, and a mowed path allows hikers to walk through the meadow. 

This is a short song you can hear from this group of Bobolinks – it's about the same length as the song from the CWRU Farm.  They may sing this song even from the ground or a low perch. 

It’s actually considerably different from the other Bobolink songs we’ve heard.  There are two introductory patterns, including a very distinctive three-note group that can begin a song or be heard in the middle.  A Bobolink may also use it alone without a subsequent song.  The first pattern on the recording is one that you may be able to recognize in a song after you’ve heard it by itself, but you probably won't be able to sing it.  The second pattern, however, is quite
distinctive and you may well be able to sing that one.  Go ahead and try it – no one’s listening!  (You'll hear each of these patterns twice.)

Here’s the entire song, so picture a male Bobolink doing his slow, fancy flight as he circles over his part of the meadow, impressing all who see him. 

You can stop here if you’d like, but if you’re interested in hearing a few comparisons of the pitch patterns by location, keep reading and listening!

The second of the introductory patterns at Holden is somewhat similar to one heard at South Russell – and you may be able to catch this.   (I also found a subtle similarity in one inner component of the South Russell and CWRU Farm songs, but it’s not apparent in real time.)   Here’s the Holden pattern first, then the similar South Russell pattern (twice each).  

What I find most interesting is listening to the distinctive signature pitch patterns characterizing the Bobolink songs at each of these three locations.   Here are the song patterns in the order of our travels:  South Russell, CWRU Farm, and Holden Arboretum.   Yes, I think you should try singing them. 

I certainly will be listening - and recording where possible - when I’m in other Bobolink habitats in the future.   I’ll close this entry by encouraging you to go back to the top and listen once more to those glorious Bobolinks we heard in the first recording.  This time, notice that buzz you’ll hear at the end: sometimes singing Bobolinks do this when they land after singing while in flight.  I was not aware of this until just a couple of weeks ago!

Finally, if you’re in Ohio, please consider attending the Bobolink celebration at Byers Woods on Saturday, June 22nd in Ashland County from 9AM - 1PM (there is a link on my sidebar calendar).  There are many interesting programs and hikes scheduled, and I'll be leading a "Listening in Nature" hike at 10AM.  See and hear for yourself how a former landfill is now full of life - and Bobolinks!


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Lisa! Will listen again and again to try to get them in my ear . . . am envisioning a bobolink men-and-boys choir performing all the variations . . .

  2. Lisa -- Very interesting! I will listen even more carefully to Bobolinks now.