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Variations on a Bird Song Theme

Focus: Whisper Song

Rich Stallcup


Song-whisperer: Steller’s Jay. Photo by Tom Grey.
Throughout the world, the songs of birds are perhaps the most diverse, ethereal, and spirit-reviving sounds there are.

At our latitude and in our continental niche, bird song is most noticeable in the spring—preceding and during the nesting season.

Veteran males sing loudly from defined territories to attract mates and to threaten other males of the same species, warning them to stay away. All species (and some subspecies) have their own unique music. Every human who is paying attention knows something about normal spring bird song.

Whisper songs are different and special, barely if at all known to even the most attentive naturalists or birders.

After accidentally hearing my first whisper song (I hadn’t even known there was such a thing), I wrote in my journal “a whisper song is a complicated, quiet melody that Steller’s Jays sing when telling each other secrets.” Anthropomorphic? No, it’s true!

We knew Steller’s Jays as talented mimics that could accurately replicate the sounds of yellow-legged frogs, rusty gates, Yosemite Park and Curry Company dump trucks backing up, goshawks, coyotes, buteos, White-headed Woodpeckers, and much more, but their ability to sing barely audible arias and melodies came as a complete surprise.
Virtuosic singer: Song Sparrow. Photo by RichStallcup.

A human must be silent and close to be allowed entry to this hushed, warbling symphony that may roll on for more than two minutes. The singer never seems to breathe during its solo—nor does the other jay, “cooing” nearby.

Song Sparrows can deliver a whisper song that is totally different from their normal sounds, and maybe only during the fall. If heard at all by birders it may remind them of some kind of thrasher singing in the distance. I have charged off through coastal scrub searching for this rare singer only to flush a Song Sparrow a few feet in, still whispering a long, very complicated, discordant melody.

Another whisper song variation works by delivering the primary song muted in volume. Recently on a PRBO bird walk some of us watched a Song Sparrow perched in a small patch of tules, powered up and postured up to sing. We were amazed when the utterance delivered was a barely audible, high reproduction of its bold song. Might this happen to be a youngster not yet ready to go full blast? Might whisper song happen when a wandering male finds itself in the depths of an already established male’s territory?

No one knows for sure.