Northern Mockingbird on a wire. This singing fool sings all night during Spring as he looks for a mate. When the nesting starts, sweet silence reigns. Photograph courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photographer, Gary Kramer.
American Robin who will sing when it is light enough. Sun, Moon, or Electric Light, it makes no difference to him. Photograph courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photographer, Lee Karney.
Another bird that is known to sing at night is the American Robin. Like the European Robin, it is influenced by the amount of light. See this lit review of "Apparent effects of light pollution on singing behavior of American Robins" in the ornithology journal Condor. So a somewhat possible guess for your nocturnal serenader is the American Robin which has been known to sing in Urban areas depending on the light.
Another bird with a sweet song documented as singing occasionally in the night is the Western Meadowlark. I took the picture above at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Riverside County. Although we have Western Meadowlarks in the OC, it is rare to find one in a residential neighborhood. They prefer a more wild habitat. Took this one out of the car window on a dusty dirt road near the parking lot entrance.
However, American Robins are not nearly so common in our neighborhoods as another bird. Here is a family story to illustrate. One night, when my brother-in-law was a boy, he was awakened night after night by a very loud bird singing in the tree outside his bedroom. Finally, one night he was unable to take it anymore. He grabbed his baseball bat and ran outside in his pajamas banging the bat on the tree trunk until the bird flew a few trees away. My pajama-clad brother-in-law then repeated his batting of the next tree and ran down the street after the bird yelling and batting.
Since this species is still around and singing nightly all over Orange County, my first guess for your bird is the bird my brother-in-law chased down the street one night with his baseball bat: the Northern Mockingbird. It is most common urban bird heard singing in Orange County in the Spring at night. I know that it has kept me awake many a Spring night with its beautiful, but very loud song. The Northern Mockingbird imitates many other bird songs and many sounds as well. I have heard of Mockingbirds whistling back a tune, imitating a pneumatic drill near a mechanic shop, and car alarms. They are not called Mimus polyglottos for nothing. Ambient noise or not, the bachelor Northern Mockingbirds are singing all night long. Even the mated Mockers sing during the full moon. So, since this common bird is loud, sings at night, and can sing sweetly, this could be your bird.
Now, regarding the ambient noise question: As you mentioned, the European Robin (which definitely is not seen in Orange County) which you referred to in the Pubmed article also seems to sing at night because daytime city sounds are drowning out its attempts to find a mate. Do I think that the daytime noise in the United States could alter our native birds' behaviors? I would not be surprised if ambient noise affects our wild birds' behaviors--it sure affects mine--but I have not yet see any studies along the same lines in the United States. Although both are called Robins and may sing at night, the European Robins are totally unrelated to American Robins. (To find out more about the European Robin, see a profile and pictures of the European Robin at British Garden Birds.)
As to the bird coughing: I wouldn't be surprised. The avian respiratory illnesses in the last few years at times have caused birds to cough. People have reported hearing coughing coming from birds in trees. So that may have been what you heard.
Or perhaps it was not a cough, but a harsh-sounding call. We have some nocturnal birds in Orange County that do make noise at night. A common nocturnal bird in Orange County is the Owl. Owls can make some strange nighttime noises. In the OC, we have Barn Owls, Western Screech Owls, and Great Horned Owls. Check out Owl Calls and Sounds from the Owl Pages to hear their calls.
When it is Spring, we may well be serenaded by one of our local birds. So when you are all awakened at night by sweet bird songs in the night, it is most likely the Mimus polyglottos, but don't let the Northern Mockingbird or any other nighttime serenader drive you batty. Ear plugs and white noise can get you through Springtime in the OC.
Thanks for your question, Todd. It was a good one.
If it sounds like the singing bird keeping Lou awake, you are listening to a Northern Mockingbird.
External Links and Resources
Birds of North America Courtesy Preview: Killdeer
Discusses the species and mentions that it is active day and night and can be heard calling at night. Very good article.
Nocturnal Migrant Flight Call Research
Article on calls made by birds migrating at night. Cornell University study.
Nocturnal Singing by Marsh Wrens
Robert M. R. Barclay Marty L. Leonard Gaynette Priesen (Condor: Vol. 87, No. 3, May-June, 1985)
Nocturnal Singing of the Western Meadowlark
Winton Weydemeyer (Condor: Vol. 35, No. 4, July-August, 1933)
Sing, It's Spring! from Range Rick Magazine
Cute, fact-filled article from the children's magazine, Ranger Rick about why birds sing.
Learn Bird Songs
From Lang Elliot comes a great site on learning bird songs.
The Life of Birds: Bird Songs
Very thorough article by Gareth Huw Davies about birds and their songs. Very good.
Variation in Repertoire Presentation in Northern Mockingbirds
Kim C. Derrickson (Condor: Vol. 90, No. 3, May-June, 1988)
The Western Meadowlark Singing at Night
George W. Lane (Condor: Vol. 35, No. 6, November-December, 1933)
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