Recording Vocalizations of Finches: Recommendations

By: Luis F. Baptista, California Academy of Sciences

(NFSS – Sept/Oct 1998)

By tradition, ornithologists distinguish between two classes of bird vocalizations, namely songs and calls. Songs tend to be more complex in structure consisting of a series of sounds strung together in different rhythms. Songs are often used to defend territories, to advertise for mates, or to court females. Rate of singing usually increases when males are separated from their mates, thus demonstrating the advertising role of song.

Song in estrildid finches is never territorial in function. It is usually produced by males courting females (directed song) or in the absence of other birds (undirected song). Among the Waxbills and their close-relatives the Cutthroat and Redheaded Finches, both sexes sing.

Calls are usually very simple in structure, and may be rendered onomatopoeically as “chit”, “chep”, “wut”, “kaaa”, “meh”, etc. They are used to warn of danger; to maintain contact between pairs, family parties, or flock members; during stress as when grabbed by a cat or human; during nest building at nest sites; when good sources of food are found; when juveniles beg for food.

Aviculturists have unique opportunities to record these vocalizations which should be stored in sound libraries for studies in ethnology, developmental psychology and taxonomy (classification). For example, the African group of Mannikins (Bronze Mannikin, Magpie Mannikin, Bicolor Mannikin, Pearly-headed Silverbill) can be distinguished from the other mannikins (e.g. Silverbills, Java Rice birds, Nuns) in that chicks of the African group have begging calls consisting of two classes of sounds (e.g. chip-cha-cha-cha) whereas the other mannikins beg with only one class of sound (e.g. che-che-che-che-che). The following are a list of sounds (call types) that should be looked for when putting together a vocabulary of finch sounds.

Long Distance Contact Call: e.g. when male and female are placed in separate rooms or chicks and parents are placed in separate rooms. Sometimes male and female long distance calls differ between the sexes, e.g. adult female Bengalese Finches and their close relatives the Javan Mannikins (Lonchura leucogastroides) have a complex call (TRRRRT!) whereas males utter a single syllabled PEEP! Oddly, juveniles younger than 60 days old may produce both, thus if possible age of the bird recorded should be noted. In Zebra Finches each male can be distinguished by this call.

Short-distance Contact Calls: Usually very soft, such as “Chep!” or “Chut!” or “Put!”.

Alarm Calls: Usually very loud, e.g. when a hawk flies by, or when you try to catch a bird, or when you approach their nest. This may be a trill (a series of short notes) in some species.

Nest Building Calls: Usually uttered mostly by the male. For example male Zebra Finches utter long series of mewing calls when trying to attract a female to his nest site; Pearly-headed Silverbills produce a long series of whistles in this context. These calls are poorly documented and probably never recorded for most species. Incidentally some males sing inside the nest (e.g. Diamond Sparrows) and these should be recorded because there may be subtle differences that may be discerned using special instruments (sound spectrograph machines).

Post-Copulatory Songs or Calls: Uttered after copulation.

Fighting Calls: Some species (e.g. Magpie and Bronze Mannikins) produce aggressive calls when fighting. These have been poorly documented. Some finches fight silently and just whack each other’s bills in ritual fighting.

Distress Calls: When one bird grabs another, e.g. when a dominant bird grabs a subordinate culminating a fight, or when the observer grabs a bird. Not all individuals will call when grabbed.

Calls at Good Food Sources: This has been described for Pearly-headed Mannikins, but I have never seen spectrograms. It is used to call other birds to a good source of victuals.

Begging Calls: These may be very soft and high-pitched during the first few days of life and then becomes more complex and louder as the chicks get older. These are poorly known. Birds being hand-raised afford good opportunities to record these calls. It is imperative that the age in days be noted when making these recordings.
The above are the most commonly encountered calls produced by finches. There are probably others produced on rare occasions. It is thus imperative that context and situation when the calls were recorded be voice-dubbed on the tape.

SONGS: Context: Songs may differ in structure depending on context, e.g. a Zebra Finch singing solitarily produces fewer notes than a finch courting a female. As noted earlier, songs produced inside a nest when nest building also differ in structure from those uttered in other contexts.

SEX: In one study male Cordon Bleus were shown to produce longer or more complex songs than females, however, in another study male and female songs were essentially identical. There appears to be geographical variation in song complexity in this species, Ethiopian females appear to sing more complex songs as compared to other birds. Some females (Silverbills, Bengalese) may on rare occasion’s sing, and there are to my knowledge no recordings in existence.

GEOGRAPHY: Just as children learn languages, juvenile birds learn songs. Given isolation, regional dialects may evolve (e.g. a man from Brooklyn versus a man from Oxford, England). If possible the origin of your birds should be noted.

ONTOGENY: Just as children go through a babbling stage in practicing language, young birds go through stages in practicing song. SUBSONG is when young birds produce amorphous sounds not recognizable as their species song. REHEARSED or PLASTIC SONG is when one begins to recognize the song, and finally CRYSTALLIZED song is when the song renditions are fixed so that each song produced sounds identical with the next one. As in begging calls it is important to note the age of the bird recorded.

Learning songs of other species: In mixed collections one invariably finds birds learning each other’s alien songs. For example, Strawberry Finches are well known to imitate songs or calls of other species. Some finches even imitate human speech. I have a recording of a Cutthroat that imitated his mistress saying: “Pretty bird! Kiss me!” The literature tells us that their relative the Redheaded Finch has also been known to imitate human speech. I also know of a Melba Finch and a Java Sparrow that learned a few words.

Recording alien songs or human speech enables investigators to tease out nature (inheritance) versus nurture (learning) in vocal development. For example Bengalese can learn canary songs, but all the syllables are crunched together into rhythms and durations typical of Bengalese because these are fixed genetically. Timor Zebra Finches can learn Australian Zebra Finch songs (which are simpler in structure), but Timors transpose the Australian songs to a higher-pitch typical of Timor songs.

Finally, one should carefully speak into the tape (before and after if possible) each recording entering the following data:

Species: English names are fine, but if possible add genus, species and subspecies if available. Unfortunately, the same English names are sometimes used for the same bird. For example, I’ve heard Javan Mannikin used for both Padda oryzivora and Lonchura leucogastroides.
Date, time, weather conditions.
Sex and age of bird.
Context when sound was produced by bird, e.g. solitarily, in a group, in vacuo or addressing another bird, in the nest, on a perch, on the ground etc.
Locality. In a cage, in an aviary, in the wild.
Don’t be afraid to talk into the tape. I knew one person who wanted the perfect recordings, so he made beautiful recordings with no voiced notes and all the data was only recorded in notebooks. Someone stole his car and his backpack containing his notes, so he was left with two years of recordings with no notes and no data. By all means take copious notes, but as a double insurance talk into the tape with at least the above listed data.

Happy recording!

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