Birds are acknowledged masters of sound, including some extremely unusual, rarely heard “songs.”
Famed bird sounds, like the Wood Thrush's ethereal song, get a lot of play time in our collective imagination. But these dazzling tunes are only the tip of the iceberg. Birds are capable of an amazingly diverse range of sounds. Some of the most wonderful and bizarre are also among the most overlooked.
To introduce some of these unusual bird sounds, we've pulled together a sampling that includes six odd-but-unforgettable gems and one sublime but little-known song. The list gets stranger as it goes, so be sure to make it to the bottom. There, you will also find ways to get involved and help protect birds throughout the Americas.
The American Bittern's inimitable call has earned it some unusual monikers, including “thunder-pumper,” “belcher-squelcher,” and “bog bull.” Does it warrant such impressive names? Definitely. To attract mates and claim breeding grounds, males gulp down pockets of air, which are released in a series of hypnotically weird drip-like sounds, each comprised of three syllables: pump-er-lunk.
Found across much of North America, as well as in portions of the Caribbean and Central America, these secretive birds have experienced a 43-percent population decline over the last 50 years, as the wetland habitats they depend upon continue to disappear.
One of the bird world's apex singers, the Musician Wren produces an astonishing melody that has earned comparison to Bach and Haydn. Despite its iconic status in the Amazon, where the bird figures in local legends, it wasn't until 2013 that researchers succeeded in understanding why its song sounds so musical to our ears. The answer lies in the wren's use of consonant intervals, i.e., complementary notes — specifically, its ability to string together perfect octave, fifth, and fourth intervals.
Musician Wrens are considered good luck by locals, which is bad news for the birds; they are hunted and sold as stuffed charms. As a result, they are disappearing from parts of their already limited range.
In the spring, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of male Gunnison Sage-Grouse congregate in leks where they participate in elaborate courtship displays designed to attract the attention of onlooking females. Males begin by inflating yellow air sacs on either side of their necks and sliding them under their wings to generate a swishing sound — similar to rustling sheets. Next comes the finale: With a violent thrust, males pump their chests upward, slapping their air sacs together to deliver a rapid, bubble-like plop-ploop.
As the sagebrush habitat that supports the Gunnison Sage-Grouse has disappeared, so have the birds. Today, only 5,000 of these Threatened birds remain in eastern Utah and western Colorado, where they are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
For a bird that spends much of its time silent and alone at sea, the Leach's Storm-Petrel is a surprisingly talented singer. At coastal nesting burrows, this storm-petrel's purrs and chatter-like sounds, employed by both sexes, are thought to play an important role in mate selection, pair bonding, recognition, and nest defense, although human listeners often just interpret them as “cute” or “adorable." After all, it's not every day you hear birds that sound like rubber toys and vroom like cartoon cars.
Similar to other seabirds, the Leach's Storm-Petrel ranges widely. They are found throughout much of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and areas beyond. Their populations are declining due to the introduction of nonnative predators to their breeding islands, and they are now considered to be Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Without uttering a sound, the bald-headed Capuchinbird has little trouble standing out, but this bird's unique qualities are more than skin deep. During breeding season, the male Capuchinbird inflates air sacs around its neck, then deflates them, belting out an eerie, buzzing grrrrraaaaaaaaaooooooooooooooo. Occasionally compared to the whine of a chainsaw or, less convincingly, to a cow's moo, the Capuchinbird's marvelously strange call is out of this world.
Although not threatened, Capuchinbird populations are in decline, likely due to the destruction of their rainforest habitat in northeastern South America.
While the White Bellbird's call may not be very bell-like, it can be heard from great distances. In fact, these tropical birds produce the loudest avian sounds on Earth. Three times more intense than the Screaming Piha — the world's second loudest bird — the White Bellbird's call was measured at 125 decibels, which is comparable to a jackhammer. In case you were wondering, the skin hanging from this bird's bill — known as a wattle — is similar to that found on roosters and is used to woo potential mates.
Found principally in mature forests in the northeastern corner of South America, the White Bellbird is not a threatened species, but its population is in slow decline, most likely as a result of habitat destruction.
The finest bird sounds may be sung, but the most unusual are … vibrated. By rubbing its special club-shaped secondary wing feathers against one another at the dizzying speed of 107 times per second — the fastest limb movement yet observed in a vertebrate — the Club-winged Manakin is able to produce a bizarre electronic-like sound. This astonishing three-syllable “call,” which begins with two abbreviated ticks followed by a longer segment, bic-bic-burrrr, may bring to mind the melodic qualities of a metal detector, but it's music to the ears of female Club-winged Manakins, which mate with the most impressive “singers.”
Restricted to cloud forests on the Andes' western slopes in Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, Club-winged Manakins are not considered a threatened species, although their population numbers are declining, most likely due to habitat destruction.
We all can do our part to protect birds.
ABC has worked with partners to protect more than 1 million acres of bird habitat in 15 countries across the Western Hemisphere. The reserves we've helped to establish are home to 2,900 bird species — including 38 percent of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Endangered and Critically Endangered Red List species in the Americas. This is a monumental undertaking, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.
Policies enacted by Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on America's birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by urging lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC's Action Center.
Finally, don't overlook the impact you can have at home. Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on the birds around you. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.