While chasing Chipping Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds at Land Between the Lakes (for recordings I’ve already featured on previous blog posts), it suddenly occurred to me that there was a pair of cowbirds in the tree overhead. Normally I wouldn’t bother, but these birds were very close and the setting was quiet and pristine. So I aimed my parabolic microphone straight up and got superb examples of the cowbird’s “male/female duet,” a commonplace springtime event in yards and gardens throughout much of North America.
What comprises a “duet”? Well, the male bows forward (see photo) and makes several low-pitched gurgly notes followed by a wavering high-pitched whistle: bublocomSEEEE! The female’s sound is a loud metallic chatter. Sometimes the male sings first and the female responds with her chatter, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Usually the two overlap their sounds to one degree or the other.
So let’s get oriented. Here is a brief recording of the male’s vocal display followed by the female’s chatter. In this case, they are non-overlapping and easy to differentiate:
Brown-headed Cowbird, male song and female chatter – recorded by Lang Elliott on 23 April 2010 at 7:25 am at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky
Now let’s hear a longer recording where the male and female sounds overlap one another. There are six examples, separated by fairly long pauses. Sometimes the male sings slightly before the female chatters. Sometimes they sound off almost at the same time. And sometimes the female clearly takes the lead.
Brown-headed Cowbird male/female duets – recorded by Lang Elliott on 23 April 2010 at 7:25 am at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky.”
I love this duetting because it alerts me to interesting behavior in my surroundings. Whenever I hear it in the spring, I not only know that the cowbirds have arrived, but I also know that a male is bowing to a female and that she is quite interested in his performance. I quickly scan the trees for the pair and then wait patiently for the bow, the gurgle-squeak, and the chatter—and what an absolute pleasure it is to behold, each and every time I see and hear it!