Bird Watcher's General Store

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Cardinal Calls

Dear Bird Folks,

There’s a bird that’s been singing in my yard and I can’t seem to see what it is. All day long the bird sings (I swear this is what it says, so don’t make a wisecrack) “weirdo, weirdo, weirdo.” No matter what I do I can’t find this bird and it’s driving me nuts. Do you have any idea what bird says, “weirdo, weirdo, weirdo”?

– Dave, S. Chatham, MA


Let me get this straight, Dave,

You are hearing “weirdo, weirdo, weirdo,” and you think it’s a bird, but you don’t want me to tease you about it? Me? That’s like asking a squirrel not to eat birdseed, or a cat not to rub against your leg or a dog not to sniff your…umm, never mind. Let’s just go with the squirrel/cat thing. Before I answer your question, I have one for you: Are you sure the weirdo sound is coming from a bird? Perhaps the neighbors are trying to tell you something. There, that’s all the teasing…for now.

I’ll bet the bird you are hearing is a cardinal. Yes, a cardinal. Right now you are probably thinking, “No, that’s not what a cardinal sounds like.” Well, it’s either a cardinal or your neighbors, so let’s got with cardinal. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this question. A few years ago a lady also heard the “weirdo” call. Her question caught me by surprise, but I gave it some thought, and after I stopped laughing, I suggested that she try to record the bird. A few days later she came in with a recording. I listened to it and heard the distinct voice of our old friend the cardinal, and it really was singing “weirdo, weirdo, weirdo.” I had heard cardinals singing this same song plenty of times before, but never once thought they were saying “weirdo,” until this lady pointed it out. Now that’s all I hear.

Like many birds, cardinals have a variety of calls and songs. Typically, field guides only describe the “classic” bird sounds. Unfortunately, very few birds have enough time to read the field guides, so they don’t always know which sounds they are supposed to make. When my wife and I go for our evening walk, she regularly asks me, “What bird is singing?” Most of the time my answer is, “cardinal.” These birds have such a large assortment of calls that she can never seem to sort them out, no matter how hard she tries. It’s not that my wife isn’t a bright person; she’s actually a highly respected schoolteacher…well, an elementary schoolteacher, but still.

There are two other things that complicate learning cardinal calls. The first is geography. Like humans, birds sound different depending on where they were born and raised. A songbird from the Northeast won’t sound exactly the same as an identical species living in the South or West. Because of that, listening to birdcall recordings doesn’t always help us. To make things even trickier, cardinals are one of the few songbirds where the females also sing. Thus, if you can somehow master the different calls the male cardinals make, you still have to learn the females’ songs, which are somewhat like the males’ songs, but not quite. See why my wife has so much trouble?

Ornithologists often attach cute mnemonic phrases to help us remember birdcalls. One of the mos is the Barred Owl calling, “Who cooks for you?” However, there are problems with mnemonics. First of all, what’s with the spelling? If they are going to invent a word that means “to assist with memory,” why don’t they spell it normally? (I need a mnemonic just to remember how to spell mnemonic.) Secondly, memory phrases are personal. A phrase that is helpful to you might not mean a thing to someone else. We sell a chart called The Tweeter Cheater, which supplies us with memory phrases for a whole list of birds. But most of them don’t make sense to me. For example, the chart says that Song Sparrows sing, “Madge, Madge, Madge, pleeeease put on the tea kettle.” Huh? I have a yard full of Song Sparrows and my ears have never heard a single one mention anyone named Madge or a desire for tea. That mnemonic is totally wasted on me. But then again, I always screw up song lyrics, so maybe it’s me.

This brings us to your cardinal. As I said earlier, the cardinal has a large assortment of songs. It sings to advertise its territory, to communicate with its mate, to threaten a rival or just to confuse you. The most common songs include, “cheer, cheer, cheer” and “what, what, what” and “birdie, birdie, birdie.” But like I said earlier, not everyone hears the same thing. To test this theory, I played the “birdie, birdie, birdie” song for a few houseguests and they said they heard, “pretty, pretty, pretty.” Then I played the “cheer, cheer, cheer” song, and they heard “beer, beer, beer.” (That will tell you the type of guests who come to my house.)

The bird you are hearing is definitely a cardinal, Dave. I think we can now add “weirdo” to its vast repertoire of songs. BTW: I played the cardinal sound clip to my wife and she said she heard, “screwball, screwball, screwball.” However, she was looking at me while she said it, so…


On a different topic:

Many years ago I received a letter from a woman named Connie, from Millbrook, NY. She told me about Mourning Doves that were nesting on her deck and we have occasionally written to each other ever since. Well, today, July 4th, 2014, Connie is celebrating her 100th birthday. Happy birthday, Connie. Thanks for all the years of Mourning Dove talk.