Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's That Singing in the Night?

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.

I received another good question yesterday and thought it deserved a post:

"hi, i am a first-time visitor to your orange county bird blog. i would like to report that i've lived in orange county for many years and this is the very first time I can recall hearing bird signals from these particular birds this early in the morning (2:00am-2:30am). I am thinking that this might be a manifestation of daytime ambient noise in this particular urban area of the county causing birds to need to communicate during the night. I found a study done at the pubmed central web site "Daytime noise predicts nocturnal singing in urban robins" (2007)....I don't know the species of bird I hear singing. Sweet songs. Definitely not a crow. Last time I remember hearing a bird in the very early morning hours, they were really weird loud calls -- almost as if the bird has a bad cough or have an interesting blog.peace.todd" [I added the link.]

Thanks for the question, Todd. And the compliment. For my answer, read on.

Many people start wondering about birds singing in the night along about this time of year. Spring is in the air, and so are bird songs. Birds sing to establish territories and to attract mates in early Spring. Once the birds start nesting, they don't sing because they do not want to attract attention to the nestlings.

Killdeer--Charadrius vociferus at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.

We do have a few birds in the United States who sing or call at night. It's just their nature. Especially wetlands birds such as Marsh Wrens. Unless you live in the wetlands, you are provably not hearing a Marsh Wren. On the occasion when I lived near water, I heard Killdeer calling at night. However, I have never heard a Killdeer's call described either as "sweet" or as a "song." So I doubt this is the bird you hear. These birds can on occasion be heard in urban area either near natural areas, or in the case of the Killdeer near a water channel or field. Most other nocturnal birds may give a call or make a noise at night, but it would not qualify as a song.

Could it be migrating birds? Perhaps, but not likely. Although birds migrating at night might call or make noise, they would not likely be singing whole songs by anyone's window. They are pretty hard to hear from up in the sky. But there are some better candidates.

Meadow Larks are known to sing occasionally during a full moon or when there is light. They have a loud, beautiful voice. However, they require lots of grassland or mesa area and are not usually found in busy urban areas. If you live near Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve or Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, or another natural area with lots of land, you may be hearing a Western Meadowlark. However, they are not common in most residential areas in Orange County.

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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Anonymous said...

Hi OC Birder Girl. You sound like you definitely know your Orange County birds. I live in Laguna Hills, next to Aliso Viejo and have recently been hearing a lot of bird activity at night. It goes on till the wee hours of the morning. My husband and I can't tell for sure, but we've picked out about 10 different chirps or bird calls. Each bird seems to have a "sentence" to say and repeats it almost verbatim 3 or 4 times. Is this normal and are we hearing 10 birds or only 1 or 2 with different calls? Some are sweet, some not so melodic. If it helps, the trees in back of the Nellie Gail trail is where all the birds seem to be calling from. Thanks, Janine

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Janine, due to the large areas of open space near your home, I would guess that the Northern Mockingbird who has a vast repertoire of songs and calls is a sure bet, and the Killdeer is a distinct possibility since they are found in open areas even away from water. Possible, but less probable would be the Western Meadowlark and the American Robin. Many birds--especially in spring start singing before the sun comes up, so you may be hearing an assortment of birds in the wee hours of the morning before the actual sunrise. So short answer, the Northern Mockingbird could well seranade you all night long with more than 10 songs. And other birds could well chime in with him. Birds in general have more than one song and several call sounds, and the Northern Mockingbirds has a plethora of songs and sounds.

Anonymous said...

Thank you OC neighbors and I just talked about this yesterday. I'm in Palos Verdes and there's a HUGE amount of night rambling and singing going on...I, personally, LOVE it and leave a side window open to hear it through my non-slumber hours...what birds perhaps are serenading our neighborhood in the noctornal hours? Loved finding your blog site, Cathy

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Thank you for your question, Cathy. I added a YouTube Video by Lou Ryder in which he video taped a Northern Mockingbird singing its heart out at about 2:00AM. This is what most people hear who complain about being kept awake at night. The Northern Mockingbird has a wide variety of sounds and is very, very loud. But the other birds mentioned in this post could also be the culprits. In Palos Verdes, you have the South Coast Botanical Gardens (, many parks, country club, golf courses, etc. All which could draw many kinds of birds like the nocturnal singers mentioned in this post. I am assuming that the feral Peacocks and parrots in Palos Verdes are not your nightly singers. A good source for information about wild birds in the Palos Verdes area is the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society They can supply information on your area, and have walks and other activities you might find enjoyable. Thanks again for your question.

Anonymous said...

Peacocks : ) You DO INDEED know your fowl!!! I see them a few times a month roaming along the streets in my neighborhood - and just last I came home from work and one startled me BIG TIME when I found it on my back porch (first time in over 16 years!) strutting around like he owned the yard : ) I DO ABSOLUTELY hear them at night as well - thank goodness, they're a little more distant. The 'singers' are in several of the trees around here - not at all like the screaching pea fowl. I thank you so much for the info and for the video...I'm heading on over to it right now : ) Cathy

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Peacocks, yeah, they are something. As a child, I lived not too far from the Arboretum in Arcadia which has a lot of Pea Fowl and over time, they have moved out into the surrounding communities. Peacocks sound to me like amped-up cats in heat. Not a pleasant sound. They can really scare the daylights out of you because they often call so loudly and suddenly--usually from a concealed place up in a tree or perched on a building. The element of surprise you might say. We have some in Orange County as well. Mostly in Irvine Regional Park and surrounding areas. They are beautiful, but.....well, you know they are big and loud and come univited. Thanks for sharing your Pea Fowl tales.

Anonymous said...

Hello Again OC Birder.

I've watched some of the vidios online and I'm convinced that the mockingbird is the one mocking my sleep at night : ) Similar sounds and songs. Thanks for solving my mystery and restoring my sanity : ) Cathy

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing up my mystery. Lou's video sounds exactly like 'my' bird. I love fall to asleep to its songs. - Beverly

~Following Harriet~ said...

I had that happen to me last spring. Hopefully, he found another location for this spring because I have not heard him.......yet. Oh and the crows during the day caw ALL....DAY.... LONG! Hope they don't come back either!

Julied said...

I noticed that these posts are really old, but I thought I'd give this a try anyways. I hear a bird that I've never heard in the 15 years of living here next to Riley wilderness park in trabuco canyon. It starts just as the sky is getting a tiny bit light and stops before the sun comes up. It almost sounds like a strange chicken. is there some way i can send you an audio file so that you can identify it for me? Thanks, Julie

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Julie, although I have not been as active a blogger as I have been in the past, I do try to answer questions. I do not have a way to have files emailed to me. It may be a California Quail. Or it could be a number of other things. You can take the file with you to the Audubon House and play it for them and see if they know what it is. Or you could check a few birds on All About Birds.

Anonymous said...

YOWZA!!! loved the recording of the bird chirping away at 2am! i am in riverside county... canyon crest area by UCR, and THAT is the bird that sings all night into the wee hours of the morning! interesting how it has so many different calls and often the types of chirps are sung in 3's before moving on to the next type of chirp! Jen!

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jen. BTW Riverside County has some awesome birding spots. Be sure to check the links on the side of my blog. I have OC adjacent birding hotspots that include Riverside County, San Bernardino, and San Diego County. :)

OC Birder Girl

spinsarah said...

Great blog! All my initial questions answered and now so much more interested in birds in my area (North County San Diego). Good links, too. - thanks!

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Thank you,spinsarah. Check my Facebook page as well for more information. Thank you for stopping by.

lcraigmoore said...

Hi! I never heard birds singing at night until I moved from the San Bernardino mountains to OC. I was amazed and I've been thrilled that it's continued for these past 23 years. Personally, I love it! But I am confused because I don't live near any open land - in fact, the 22 and 405 freeways are just two blocks away. This nocturnal serenading isn't limited to spring, as I believe you said it is,also. I hear it all year long. Sometimes there will be periods of silent nights, several weeks of just the nighttime freeway noise, but then, suddenly, there it is, my wonderful Concert in the Dark! In fact, the reason I'm writing this now is because he was putting on a show a little while ago, and it is the middle of summer. Also, I've noticed it beginning as early as 10:00pm, and there are nights that it will go on for hours and hours. I didn't see the link you said you posted for the YouTube video, so I've not heard anything to see if the Northern Mockingbird is indeed the source of my enjoyment. I originally thought it was several different birds, and actually, I still think it might be more than one because I have heard one over another. Is this bird capable of doing something like that?
Thank you

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Thank you for your question, Linda. Sometimes areas that at first seem very urban are actually great areas for birds because they are surrounded by prime bird and wildlife areas. Sometimes the habitat is there even though it is a city. Birds travel between areas in migration and just in normal foraging. The area where you live is actually not that far from several areas that attract a lot of birds: The Destroyer Golf Course, the Old Ranch Country Club, The Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge and Naval Weapons Station, Bosla Chica Wildlife Refuge, Los Alamitos Race Track, El Dorado Park, golf course, and Nature Center, Cypress Nature Park,many neighborhood parks, and business parks with lots of trees. Many neighborhoods in many of the area have trees such as jacarandas and fruit bearing trees. There are lots of canals and there is water in many of the above areas. Some of the have a lot of light even at night which can cause birds to be active at night. This area attracts a lot of birds in spring, summer, and fall. And a lot of swallows of several species in the late spring and summer. This area also has a lot of Western Bluebirds all year. It may appear that there is nothing to attract the birds but the area is surrounded by prime bird habitat and the streets are lined with trees. Areas like Cypress, Westminster, and Garden Grove, and other nearby cities are perfect for birds. Most of Orange County does have lots of birds because it is full of parks, regional parks, and nature areas. You may have Mockingbirds and you may be hearing birds moving through the neighborhood on their way to another great habitat or just in migration in the fall and spring. There is a YouTube video that plays the sound of a Mockingbird in the article. Or you can go to YouTube and search for Mockingbird. Lots of videos of Mockingbirds. Thank you again for your question, it was a good one.

Jimmy Dee said...

Been bugging me for years, it seems........

Late at night I walk past a school playground in Tustin and hear this high pitched call. I've heard it near parks and other open spaces as well. WTH IS IT, and who the heck is flying around at night? LOL LOL LOL (I KNOW what Mockingbirds sound like, and that ain't it. Besides, it's January, and I know that M-birds really get going in May and June. )

Thx to the clues you left (affinity for open areas, meadows, etc.), and confirmation of the bird's call on its Wiki page..........Killdeer!!!!

Now that's solved. I can rest EZ. LOL