This morning at 4:00am, I arrived at my destination and within ten minutes I was standing quietly in mature hardwood forest, awaiting the first twilight notes from an Eastern Wood-Pewee that I had located the day before. At 4:25am, I heard a single, whistled pee-a-wee from perhaps a hundred feet away. I moved through the woods in the direction of the sound.
By 4:35 the male was singing full-tilt in the twilight. It took me nearly ten minutes to locate his position, somewhere high in the top of a giant oak tree. Other birds had begun singing and I feared they would drown-out his delicate whistles. But soon I had my parabolic microphone aimed directly at him (even though I couldn’t see him in the darkness) and I was able to capture the “twilight song” performance featured above. I am quite pleased with the result, including the background bird sounds (especially the Wood Thrush)!
Tranquil and calming, the plaintive notes of the Eastern Wood-Pewee have been variously described as sweet, pure, peaceful, serene, and sad. The pewee’s daytime song is composed of two slurred, whistled phrases — a wavering pee-a-wee and a downward pee-oh. Delivery of these phrases is leisurely, with long pauses of five or ten seconds between. The pee-a-wee phrase is usually given more frequently, with the down-slurred pee-oh phrases added every so often, as if to provide a sense of musical completion to the sequence: pee-a-wee … pee-a-wee … pee-a-wee … pee-oh … Here is an example of typical daytime singing:
While the leisurely daytime song is familiar to most birders living within the species’ range, the male pewee also sings a special version of song for about a half hour at the break of dawn and sometimes at dusk. Animal psychologist Wallace Craig was the first to describe this behavior in his well-known 1926 study, The Twilight Song of the Wood Pewee: A Preliminary Statement.
In the twilight song, the singing rate is much faster than in normal song, with only one to three seconds’ pause between phrases. Also, an entirely new phrase, sounding like ahh-d’dee, is added to the sequence. It is composed of notes that rise in pitch. A typical twilight song sequence might go like this: pee-a-wee … ahh-d’dee … pee-a-wee … ahh-d’dee … pee-oh, and so forth. And that is what you hear in the featured recording. A close-and-clean example follows:
If you want to witness the pewee’s spirited twilight performance yourself, locate a singing male during the day and then return the next morning well before first light. Find a comfortable log to sit on. Listen for the first plaintive pee-a-wee. The male will sing leisurely at first, but before long he’ll be piping his twilight song at full tilt. Quite often, the pewee’s song is the first bird sound you will hear. Within several minutes, however, other species begin to join-in, the pewee’s plaintive notes providing a measured counterpoint to what soon becomes a raucous chorus of avian musicians, celebrating the coming of the light.
To provide you with visual feast, below is a video I put together last year. The last half features twilight song, but not videotaped in the twilight. It just so happens that the twilight song pattern often occurs during aggressive encounters, or the case of my video, after performing a song playback to entice the male to come into view.
Friends … if you find that my blog has a positive impact on your life, please help support my effort by making a modest donation.