For the Birds Radio Program: Onomatopoetic Bird Calls and Mnemonics

Original Air Date: Nov. 16, 1987

Laura talks about birds that ostensibly say their names or other words. (3:41) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Bobolink)

Bird songs are easiest to learn when they are set to words. The earliest white settlers to North America named the Bobolink for its call–they thought its jumble of notes sounded like “Bobolink, Bobolink, spink spank spink.”

(Recording of a Bobolink)

Somehow I’ve always been able to recognize the Bobolink’s song even though I don’t have enough imagination to hear that “Bobolink, Bobolink, spink spank spink.”

Onomatopoeic devices work very well with some calls. Just about everyone hears “quack quack” when a duck calls.

(Recording of a Mallard quack) A Black-throated Green Warbler sounds like it’s singing “Zee Zee Zoo Zoo Zee” or “Zee Zee Zee Zoo Zee.”

(Recording of a Black-throated Green Warbler) And a Cardinal sounds a lot like its singing “purty purty purty” and “Cheer cheer cheer.”

(Recording of a Cardinal)

But some of the most common onomatopoeic devices only work because they follow a rhythm, rather than the actual voiced sounds, of a bird song. Most people recognize a White-throated Sparrow song through the words “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” But the National Geographic Field Guide interprets that song as “Pure sweet Canada Canada Canada,” which works just as well.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Some ornithologist long ago decided that Red-winged Blackbirds sing “Okalee,” and though I can’t hear it, “okalee” is how I learned the song.

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird)

Common Yellowthroats sing “Wichity Wichity Wichity”

(Recording of a Common Yellowthroat)

And Chestnut-sided Warblers say “Please please pleased ta meetcha!” or “I’m here to see Miss Beecher!”

(Recording of a Chestnut-sided Warbler)

Robins sing “Spring is here!” even when one bursts out in song in late autumn–the way I heard one just last week.

(Recording of a Robin)

To me a Henslow’s sparrow sounds like it’s hiccoughing, but one ornithologist decided it was really saying “se-lick”

(Recording of a Henslow’s Sparrow)

Nuthatches supposedly say Yank Yank.

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

Hairy woodpeckers say “Pik Pik.”

(recording of a Hairy Woodpecker)

Some fairly complicated songs still manage to get an onomatopoeic device. In the first ornithology class I took, my professor taught us the Song Sparrow’s song as “Peace Peace, Peace, all my little children Peace!”

(recording of a Song Sparrow)

And my favorite device of all is one an old birding buddy once taught me for the Warbling Vireo, which goes, “If I could see her I would seize her and I would squeeze her till she squirt!”

(Recording of a Warbling Vireo) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”