[Banner image: Victorin’s Warbler by Dylan Vasapolli/Birding Ecotours].
The beauty of birdsong is perhaps eclipsed only by the complexity of birdsong. The more attuned one becomes to bird-listening (instead of bird-watching), the more you realize that the varied ‘languages’, dialects and variations of avian vocalizations are so much more extensive than one twenty-second cut on a CD or app might suggest. Sure, many people can identify birds by their voices – but typically that only involves full sexual/territorial songs, by males, during the breeding season. But the typical advertisement song is barely the beginning. Many species exhibit glorious, confounding and endless variation in terms of gender, region, age, time of the year, time of the day and context. Bioaccoustic researchers have dedicated their entire careers to understanding such variation, its origins, its mechanisms and its meaning. The limited in-depth research that has been done on this subject has shown that birds have subtly but consistently different calls to communicate different ideas. For example, they may utter different alarm calls for different kinds of predators, and different calls for predators on the ground vs. predators in the sky. Can you capture the entirety of a language with one sample sentence? The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy brown dog. As with any discipline in life, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you still know – and to me this is nowhere more true than in my study of bird vocalization!
Do you fancy yourself a bit of an expert when it comes to identifying bird calls? Then this challenge is for you. Below I have selected 15 of my own recordings, representing some of the strangest, most unusual, and least known calls of Southern African birds. But be warned: this is really tough stuff! I sneakily suspect that this quiz will be a formidable challenge even to the Hardakers, Ryans, Kemps, Marais’s, Sinclairs, Tarbotons, Cohens, Perrins’es and Vasapollis among us. If you get none right, you’ll still rank pretty high. If you get a few right, I’ll be thoroughly impressed. If you get more than 10 right, you must be Austin Roberts reincarnate. But nevertheless, I hope you will enjoy this little challenge, and learn a few new calls in the process. Let me know in the comments how you fare.
First try to listen to the clip without consulting the flip box clue. And don’t accidentally reveal the answer prematurely!
Mystery Call No. 1
Let’s jump right in with a tricky one! This is a juvenile begging vociferously and nearly continuously from its parents, in the coastal forests near Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal. In the background you can hear Sombre Greenbuls, various sunbirds and the gentle lapping of the nearby surf. The bird was fluttering around in the mid-stratum, about 2 m above the ground.
A localised species, related to batises and the only representative of its genus in Southern Africa. Male and female look different: they are both patterned in black and white, with a touch of red eye-liner on the face. Juveniles look drastically different though…