Some birds have excellent singing skills. Other birds . . . not so much.
Birding blogger Nick Lund, also known as The Birdist, picked out some of the weirdest-sounding birds for NPR. His top five choices include the Atlantic Puffin, Bald Eagle, American Bittern, Northern Barred Owl, and Willow Ptarmigan.
Here’s the story behind each one:
The Atlantic Puffin is silent when out at sea, but on land it makes a creepy cackling noise to communicate with others in its nesting colony. People liken this sound to a chainsaw snore, Lund says. “For such a famously cute bird, it sure sounds dumb.”
The Bald Eagle has a “bark” that’s far less threatening than its bite. Females often make a high-pitched whistling noise when they’re feeling frisky—a sign that they’re ready to get down and dirty with their mates. “It’s jarring because the sounds they make are so at odds with their graceful presence,” says Lund.
The sound of a dripping faucet may drive humans crazy, but for the American Bittern, it’s similar to a mating or territorial call. Bitterns are shy creatures that tend to hide out in the reeds, so their ability to resonate can be a bit of a bombshell. “It’s an incredible call, physically, and can be heard from miles away,” Lund says.
The Barred Owl is never laughing with you—it’s laughing at you. The bird has many different calls, including the startling hooting sound it uses for courtship. Mated pairs sometimes perform this number as a duet, too.
But in the end, in the ridiculous-sounding-birds contest, the Willow Ptarmigan “wins by a landslide,” says Lund. The fluffy white ptarmigan sounds more like a cartoon character (think Porky Pig or Glenn Quagmire) than an actual bird. Males use their nasally barks to impress females. “Can you imagine if humans communicated in that language?” Lund says.
Some other goofy-sounding birds that didn’t make the final cut include the Greater Prairie-Chicken, which can moan and cluck at the same time; the Red-breasted Nuthatch (which “makes the same dumb little honking noise all day long,” says Lund); the Yellow Rail; and of course, Wild Turkeys.
“It’s important to stress that, to each other, none of these birds sound dumb,” says Lund. “They probably sound like some bird version of Pavarotti or Sinatra.”