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Onomatopoetry in motion

July 1, 2011
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Before this past weekend the last new bird I’d picked up for my Triangle Big Year was Eastern Whip-poor-will, the result of an after dark mini-nightjar survey in southern Chatham County in late May.  Then June happened, which, in my humble opinion, is the slowest month of the year for birding.  Breeding birds are in place (and if things are going to plan you’ve already picked those up), and even those that are present are looking more than a little molty and messy.  Throw in the beginning of the summer swooning season in the south and you’ve got a recipe for more or less slow birding.  Occasionally good birds are turned up though, and the lucky birder gets out to see them.

One blistering hot afternoon, when my son went down for his afternoon nap, I slipped away to Mid-Pines Road south of Raleigh to look for a certain singing bunting.  The road cuts through several acres of fields managed by North Carolina State University’s agriculture department and are usually managed more or less well for grassland birds.  This is a good spot for Meadowlarks, Shrikes, Kestrels, etc.  In spring you can usually find flocks of Bobolinks for a brief period and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers have been reported on a few occasions over the years.  I was hot on the trail of Dickcissel, and one had been reported here a day earlier singing as if on territory and a second, a female, was reported gathering nesting material, potentially the first incidence of nesting for this species in the county (though I could be wrong on that).

Indigo Buntings were singing, Blue Grosbeak sprung off the power lines, and a loud family of Eastern Kingbirds held court on a barbed wire fence.  They seemed to be as irritated by the heat as I was.

With no luck early on and the window for child nap time rapidly closing I revisited the initial email reporting this bird to the listserv and realized I was in the wrong place.  I booked back down to the proper spot and immediately heard the most bizarre bird song, a cross between a Red-winged Blackbird and an Indigo Bunting.  Could this be my bird?

Onomatopoeia is one of those $10 words that refers to a word than imitates the sound that it makes.  Words like “Bang” and “Splash” and “Crack”.  We birders use it more often than most because we also use it to describe those birds that say their names.  Killdeer is one.  Towhee.  Whip-poor-will.  Bobwhite.  Cuckoo (the Euro one).  Dickcissel is a little known onomotopoetic bird, but the traditional song is supposed to go something like dick-dick cisssss-el.

I dunno.  I could never hear the pleased pleased please to meetcha of a Chestnut-sided Warbler either.

This was roughly the sound of the Dickcissels I’d heard growing up in Missouri, and the Dickcissels I’d had at this very site a couple years ago too.  Not onomatopoeia by any means, but at least the traditional song.  This bird was a harsh chip, sometimes given twice (not too weird), and then a ratchety metallic trill of about six or seven notes that sounded a lot like the reeeeee in the KONK-a-reeeee of a Red-winged Blackbird.  I tried to record it but my phone was not up to the task.  Fortunately Robert Meehan of Birding Bros Blog got a nice video with a snippet.

Anyway, with this odd vocalization as my best shot, I walked into the field as far as I could and cornered the (still singing) bird in a Basswood Tree, where it stuck tight.  Peering into this surprising dense tree I finally saw my bird on the back side and it was, indeed, the male Dickcissel, which promptly flew to the top of said tree offering some opportunities for photos, which is always nice.

I never saw the female, though subsequent reports note that they seem to be concentrating on a willow grove near a creek, which is nice because previous Dickcissel nesting attempts have been scuttled by premature threshing of the fields.  They should be safe this year and in a few weeks we should have confirmation of what we all hope is going on there.  Baby Dickcissels, or as I will have to start calling them in keeping with their onomatopoetic nature, Dickakakakakak.

172 down, 44 to go.

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3 Comments
  1. July 1, 2011 10:53 am

    The song of our local Dickcissel this summer doesn’t really sound like dick-dick cisssss-el, either. In fact, when I went to see it, for a long time I couldn’t find the bird because I was listening for dick-dick cisssss-el when the individual in question sounded a lot more like a Red-winged Blackbird.

  2. July 1, 2011 12:34 pm

    When I was in Iowa several years ago, I noticed a distinct difference in Dickcissel songs between there and the birds I’d heard in Maryland. But it’s been so long I can’t describe the difference. I have a vague recollection of reading about an east/west song difference. The Maryland birds mostly sang dick-dick-cis-cis-cis.

    Because birds’ song dialects can change so much, I wonder if the song descriptions for some birds are just out of date. Maybe some Chestnut-sided Warbler poupulations did sing pleased-pleased-pleased-to-meetcha! at one point, but the description stuck. And maybe Dickcissels did sing just that when the bird was first described. Non oscine bird songs are more likely to remain the same because they are (typically) innate rather than learned.

  3. July 1, 2011 7:21 pm

    I could never manage to match the mnemonic “a little bit of bread and some cheeeeese” to the Yellowhammer here in the UK. People hear strange things when they have been outside on their own for too long.

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