Young robins must learn to sing

Why do fools fall in love? Why do birds sing so gay?

— Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

A baby robin jabbers in the yard. At least I think it's a robin. I can't see him, but I can hear him. He's going champhlyxumphaughargh!, or something like that, robin baby talk roughly equivalent to goo-goo.

You couldn't mistake Father Robin's song. He sang his "cheerily, cheer-up" at the top of his lungs, starting before 5 a.m. this spring.

But now mating is over, the fledglings are out of the nest, and you probably wouldn't sing either if you were molting.

But you can still hear Father and Mother Robin calling to the kids, saying "chirp" or "cuck" or "tut-tut" when the neighborhood sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks are about, as well as times when the motivation is beyond our ken.

We had both American robins and scrub jays in or near the yard this spring. The future of the robin hatchlings was in doubt when the scrub jay parents decided to have them for dinner, literally. But robins usually lay at least three or four eggs, and they are fierce nest defenders. And sometimes they have a second brood in a new spot, and the male mentors the first bunch of fledglings while mom incubates the second clutch.

Predators against which robins must defend the nest in Southern Oregon include scrub jays, Steller's jays, American crows, common ravens, raccoons, bobcats, black bears, chipmunks, foxes, squirrels and many species of owls. But all those wild creatures together do not kill nearly as many robins as house cats allowed outside by unaware or uncaring owners.

But about those vocalizations. Some youngsters you can't miss. Young house finches and grosbeaks may mangle the joyous warblings of their fathers and uncles, but I think I recognize them. And young crows don't have a steep song-learning curve, as I am reminded seeing two baby crows cadge food from an adult as I'm walking to work the morning I write this. The young crows crane their necks and open their maws and shake their quivering feathers as the elder feeds them bits of french fries or something from the gutter.

"Caw!" the youngsters say. "Caw! Caw!"

We often equate songbirds with passerines, or perching birds, birds with three forward-pointing toes and one pointing backwards. It's sometimes useful to think of birds as either passerines or not. But there are two kinds of passerines, oscines and suboscines, and they have different kinds of vocal equipment. Almost all North American songbird species are oscines. The exceptions are flycatchers, kingbirds, black phoebes and so on.

Suboscines' songs are pretty much hard-wired and don't change much. Oscines such as robins, sparrows and wrens have both an inborn and a learned component, and therefore some variety in their songs. Scientists think that oscines are born with a basic "song template" and then must practice imitating their fathers.

Donald Kroodsma, who has studied robin song, writes in "The Singing Life of Birds" that —¦each male robin has a largely unique repertoire of caroled phrases that I can use to identify him as an individual."

Many young oscines are silent in fall migration, then practice to perfect their singing on their wintering grounds, the better to sweep feathered babes off their four-toed feet come nesting season. Maybe next year our baby robin will be a regular Pavarotti. No pressure, though. I'd settle for Frankie Lymon.

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