The English language is rich with abstract words to describe visual perception. If I told you to picture a food item, cylindrical in shape, perhaps 6″ long and 3/4″ in diameter, with rounded, slightly puckered ends, and a pinkish hue, you’d likely call up an image of a hot dog. But if instead I wanted to describe a sound, my options would be much more limited. Musicians have a technical language for describing musical sounds, involving pitch, timbre, duration, and harmonic structure, but these terms don’t help much if I want to tell you about Musti’s bark.
Birders regularly confront this poverty of language when they talk about avian vocalizations. One solution we employ is “transliteration,” where birdsong is interpreted as human language, resulting in descriptions like “witchety, witchety” for the Common yellowthroat, or “Oh Canada, my sweet Canada,” for the White-throated sparrow. These can be very helpful mnemonics, or evidence at a dinner party that birders are insane, but they have limited power to help you imagine the song itself if you’ve never heard it before. Another, perhaps more evocative, approach is to describe a less-familiar bird’s song in terms of one that is well known. And as a point of reference, no bird is more popular than the American robin. The robin is common, songful, and presumably familiar to anyone who is engaging in further study of birdsong. Just as important, the form of his singing is broadly similar to that of many other birds. Here, then, are recordings of the reference standard and four derivatives.
First, the American robin himself, recorded near Rattlesnake Hill in the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, MA. The buzzing at 0:14 is an approaching bumblebee, not the start of an aerial bombardment.
The comparisons to the robin’s song usually begin with the Rose-breasted grosbeak, who is canonically described as “a robin who has taken voice lessons.” This individual was recorded in the Fowl Meadow section of the Blue Hills in Dedham, MA.
Not all of the comparisons are flattering, though. The Scarlet tanager is “like a robin with a sore throat.” Apologies for Musti’s restless feet near the start of the recording, from Rattlesnake Hill.
Then things get more creative. The red-eyed vireo, a constant singer of mid summer, is variously described as a sleepy robin or a robin with a valium problem. More restless feet at the base of Rattlesnake Hill.
Finally, the Wood thrush, a bird that’s actually related to the robin, another member of the thrush family. The Wood thrush’s song sounds to me like a psychedelic reinterpretation of the robin’s. In this recording from Fowl Meadow, there is a Tufted titmouse singing a “veer veer veer” counterpoint to the more musical phrases of the thrush.