The early bird greets dawn with song
I think, after all these years, Allen Benton’s rain song was just the robin whispering to itself.
1973. I was finishing my senior year at SUNY-Fredonia in western NY after a several year intermission, so to speak, in the military. Dr. Benton, the Biology Department’s Field Biologist, was my advisor and during a casual chat about — I can’t remember what — he made passing reference to a robin’s rain song.
It was of course news to me that such a thing existed, but not wanting to seem the birding rube I most certainly was, I nodded knowingly and the conversation moved on. Then, too, I had just exited a culture that little prized the questioning of authority and Dr. B. was obviously that.
Over the ensuing decades I’d sometimes find myself pausing, on the front stoop of a Philadelphia apartment building, in the wooded foothills of the Appalachians or from a classroom window in northwest Ohio, to listen to the rain. Or rather, through the rain, craning to hear a trace of fluted music behind the curtain of showers. But I had the timing wrong.
The American robin’s song is one of the most familiar sounds of spring and early summer. Throughout North America, it is commonly the first morning sound, after the alarm clock, we hear. The insomniac’s companion, the neighborhood robin often begins his chorale as early as 3 or 4 a.m.
His song, a long sequence of terse liquid phrases, if not exactly beautiful at least has the charm of bright enthusiasm: “Cheerily cheer-up cheer-up cheerily cheerily cheer-up!” Having learned the song of the one in your backyard, you’ll recognize robin voices across the continent; the species’ song pattern and texture are that distinctive.
And yet, like all members of the thrush family, the robin’s seemingly simple, repetitive song is actually quite complex. A 2006 study demonstrated that individual robins largely invent the separate elements of their song and the sequence in which they are used. Each male proclaiming his territory has a unique song that every other robin in the area can easily recognize.
Robins may be heard any time of day, but the singing will be most intense before sunrise and in the twilight of early evening, and least common around midday. Most mated pairs in our area raise two broods of young per season. Once the first brood of (typically four) eggs hatches, the male takes a short break from singing, recommencing when the chicks fledge from the nest in about two weeks.
Although robins typically cease singing in July-August while molting their feathers, some few may offer a week or two of encore performances in September.
Both males and females have a collection of other vocalizations that serve a variety of purposes. When the young leave the nest, they can neither fly nor forage for themselves very well. The parents follow them about, feeding and protecting them for several weeks during which time the male and female communicate with a series of low “pup” chirps. They use a much harsher “chuck” and a rapid sequence of “chirr” or “chee” notes as alarm calls in the presence of a cat, raccoon or other threat from the ground (such as a human).
The approach of an aerial predator like a hawk or jay, however, triggers a very high-pitched “tseew” or “seet” which, interestingly enough, elicits freezing behavior in nearby birds of many species — even domestic chickens, according to one report.
On occasion, robins attach a much subdued, closed-bill “subsong” — or whisper song — at the end of the territorial song. Sometimes described “hisselly-hisselly,” rather like a furtively hissed “cheerily-cheerily,” it may also be heard during courtship and beneath the darkening sky prior to a summer storm or in its aftermath.
… Forty-some years down the road from that off-hand chat in Benton’s office and it was my turn to play the graying, venerable Dr. B. to my own audience of eager young students. It was my last time teaching Ornithology before retiring and it was raining as I began the avian behavior section of the course.
“So then, what might you suggest to be some of the main functions of bird song? … Yes, yes, establishing and defending territories and attracting mates. Very good, anything else?”
The sheer joy of singing? Of being alive?
Uff da. How to respond to such a wide-eyed perspective? I can describe a bird’s behavior and suggest its utility, but what can we possibly know of how it’s feeling inside? A soft roll of far distant thunder brought to mind the robin’s subsong.
“Well yes, possibly. I hope so, anyway. I’ve heard that robins sometimes whisper a special song before a storm — a rain song of sorts. I like to think it excites them.”
Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.