Tag Archives: birdsong

The World’s Funniest Bird Sounds- And How They’re Made

Last month’ post about amazing bird sounds from Massachusetts was so popular, we decided to create a definitive ranking of the funniest bird vocalizations from around the world.

How do birds make so many sounds?

Birds have a vocal organ called a “syrinx” that mammals (and other vertebrates) lack. Different groups of birds have specialized syrinxes that can produce different sounds, but all of them allow for a wide variety of vocalizations.

Humans have a single set of vocal chords that sit in the windpipe, or trachea. Most birds’ syrinxes, on the other hand, are located where their trachea branches in two (towards each lung). This allows some songbirds, like thrushes, to regulate the air exiting each lung individually, creating two distinct notes at once. Other birds, like parrots, have a syrinx in their trachea—but with more moving parts than human vocal chords.

All syrinxes share this complexity. In addition to using membranes that vibrate to produce sound, the syrinx contains a network of muscles to “shape” air as it exits their lungs—sort of like how we use our lips to whistle, but with a few added degrees of complexity.


The contenders:

10. Screaming Piha


This group of Pihas from the Amazon sound… just plain rude.

 

9. Slate-colored Solitaire


Like the Veery in Massachusetts, these members of the thrush family give the forest soundscape an ethereal feel with their clear, echoing whistles. Click on 2:18 for the best part!

 

8. Andean Goose


These aren’t flatulent geese- that’s just their syringeal flutter.

 

7. Willow Ptarmigan


Ptarmigans sound cartoonish, and their clucking can resemble the sound of human speech.

 

6. Great Jacamar


Ambush predators of the rainforest mid-story, Jacamars can sit motionless for hours waiting for their butterfly prey to come within catching distance. Their nasal, drawn-out calls fade out towards the end, sounding almost lazy, and evoking the midday heat of tropical forests.

 

5. Short-tailed Shearwater


Shearwaters and petrels are often silent at sea, but clamorous at their burrows.

 

4. Capuchinbird


These birds are incredibly loud, and their voices can carry for miles. They’re known locally as the “calfbird” for their lowing, cow-like moans.

 

3. Laughing Kookaburra


A classic sound of the Australian bush at dawn, gregarious Kookaburras duet and countersing with each other frequently.

 

2. Imperial Snipe


This combination of cackles and what sounds like a landing spaceship is just about as weird as it gets. But the otherwordly humming and buzzing that accompanies the Snipe’s vocalization is created by air rushing past its wings as it displays– so the snipe only comes in at #2.

 

1. Horned Screamer


Screamers gulp like bitterns, honk like geese, and irritate residents of Amazonian South America with their dawn cacophanies like no other bird.

 


With such a wide range of sounds, it’s no wonder birdsong inspired so many human musicians—from Vivaldi’s 17th century goldfinch themes, to DJ Ben Mirin’s wildlife-inspired EDM.

What do you think about this (deeply subjective) ranking? Can you think of any birds that should have made the cut?

 

 

The Ten Craziest Massachusetts Bird Noises

If you’ve never heard a male Snowy Egret nasally bubble away at a rival, well, you are in for a treat.

Using Xeno-canto, an online library of bird sounds to which anyone can contribute, we’ve chased down the strangest recordings of species native to Massachusetts. Hit the play button in the clips below to check them out!

In the first half of this post, we’ll run through some strange bird noises that are easy to go out and hear for yourself.

We’ll review even weirder noises in the second half, but ones that are hard or impossible to experience in Massachusetts. This second section is devoted to noises that migratory birds make on their breeding grounds far to the north, or in other parts of their range.

Part 1: Sounds You Can Hear in Massachusetts

1. American Bittern:

Distant relatives of herons, bitterns make a booming, gulping noise while pumping their necks up and down, giving them the nickname “thunder-pumper.” Hit the play button in this clip and turn up the bass!

An American Bittern stands tall among marsh grasses. Photo (c) William Freedberg

2. Bobolink:

A once-common sound of farm fields and grasslands, the Bobolink’s song incongruously brings to mind R2-D2 from Star Wars.  These grassland birds abounded during the height of low-impact agriculture in New England, but farmland loss, development, intensive harvesting and pesticide use have reduced their numbers dramatically.  With recent conservation programs like the Bobolink Project, which pays farmers directly to protect grassland birds, this species’ future is looking a little brighter.

 

3. Veery:

Veeries are drab, russet-colored thrushes with an outsized voice. They can produce several clear tones at once, and almost sound like they are harmonizing with themselves. While uncommon near developed areas, this birds are one of the most numerous summer birds of deep forest far from the coast.

 

4. Barred Owl:

Owls don’t just hoot—they also can yelp, screech, and shriek. This Barred Owl transitions from a high-pitched wail (which may be a regionalism or an alarm call) into its lower and more commonly-heard “who-cooks-for-you-all.”

 

5. Common Loon:

Perhaps the most iconic sound on this list, the wail of the Common Loon is practically synonymous with the wilderness of northern New England (although they also breed in central Massachusetts). In this recording, listen for their yodels at the beginning, a loud wail at 0:31, and keening starting at 0:09 and 0:58.

Part 2: Sounds Massachusetts Birds Make Elsewhere

6. Snowy Egret:

This might be the weirdest one on the list. Graceful Snowy Egrets are common in New England saltmarshes, but rarely vocalize away from rookeries. At rookeries, however, they’re known for a cartoon character-like and downright hilarious.

A Snowy Egret patrolling the shallows for prey. Photo (c) William Freedberg

7. Pectoral Sandpiper:

Pectoral Sandpipers and many other species of shorebirds seem like much different animals on their breeding grounds than on the east coast during migration: they become quite fearless and territorial, their plumage takes on dramatic patterns, and they sing with a surprising variety of chortles, whoops and whistles. This Pectoral Sandpiper’s song sort of sounds like… somebody blowing bubbles?

 

8. Turkey Vulture:

Turkey Vultures almost never vocalize. When they do, all that comes out is a raspy, sizzling hiss, like adding water to a hot pan.

 

9. Atlantic Puffin:

While puffins are uncommon winter visitors to the waters off MA, you can easily hear their characteristic grumbles on breeding colonies in Maine.

 

10: Great Shearwater:

These pelagic, albatross-like birds are frequently encountered on whale watches and offshore boat trips in Massachusetts waters. While silent at sea, they’re… really quite vocal on breeding colonies, where they sound like rubber chickens brought to life.

A Great Shearwater, true to its name, glides tight to the waves. Photo (c) William Freedberg

These are just our picks for the strangest noises made by local birds… but there are so many other options, it’s hard to winnow them down to just a few!

What would make your top ten? Let us know in the comments!