Birds do not sing as often in autumn as in spring, nor are their songs as varied. But they sing, nonetheless. As in the spring, the songs are designed to establish territories. But the functions of these territories are not for mating and raising offspring.
Who is Singing?
A careful listener can usually identify the bird even if it can't be seen.
- Some songs are trills repeated with only minor variation as if the bird is saying: “Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.” A sparrow-sized bird might be seen flitting low in the shrubbery. It will have a short tail, long, curved bill, and stripes over its eye. Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) males sing sporadically through the day. Outside of the breeding season, October is the next best time to hear them.
- If what is heard is familiar and repeated three times, then the song changes to another bird's, also repeated three times, the bird will probably be high in a tree, on a rooftop, or pole.The gray and white, long-tailed, robin-sized, northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) will fly-hop from his post into the air, somersault, and pirouette in a jerky circle, before returning to his vantage point. And all the time he is doing this, he is singing his heart out. The females sing more frequently in autumn than at other times of the year.
- Sometimes the repeated “chew, chew, chew, chew, chew” of a northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) can be heard. Males, females, and even juveniles will sing a little in autumn. The male keeps his beautiful red plumage and black face all year long, but telling females from juveniles requires a little more attention to details. Juveniles still have a dark beak, their plumage is brownish with a little rust, and their crests are ragged. Females' beaks are yellowish orange to reddish, plumage is reddish brown, and their crests are as defined as the adult males.
- As evening approaches, a quiet, descending “WhooOOoo, hoo, hoo, hooo” might be heard coming from a pine tree. A careful viewer will find a medium large bird with a long pointed tail, sitting crossways on a branch in the lower middle of the tree. There may be two to a dozen or more mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) on the same branch, settling down for the night. They use their only vocalization for both mating and telling others where to roost.
What Are Autumn Songs Used For?
None of these songs are being used to obtain a mate. Carolina wrens, mockingbirds, and cardinals all establish exclusive feeding territories for the winter. Their song tells interlopers the area is occupied and the resident requests exclusive use of the territory.
The mourning dove's songs are their call to roost and sometimes ten or more birds will sleep on the same branch. Mourning doves prefer pine trees because they keep their needles in the winter, and this provides more warmth than naked branches do.
Do Any Birds Sing to a Mate at This Time of Year?
There is one bird that might be heard in late autumn that is actually singing to attract a mate and form a pair bond: the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). These magnificent birds breed in January or February and nest in mid-winter. Their mating songs reverberate throughout woods and thickets across North America.
These songs are not the typical, low-key “Hoooo hoo hoo hoo huh huh” of their summer calls, though. Both the male and female improvise duets, and in the heat of passions in November through early December, will make a cacophony of hoots, screams, and loud chucklings such as one will never hear at any other time of year. Hearing their eerie vocalizations on a foggy evening near Halloween sends chills up the spine.
These songs should be enjoyed when they are heard, because most end when winter comes.