SPOTTED NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga caryocatactes)
Now here is an interesting bird, not only does it have a fascinating and slightly mysterious lifestyle, but it brings to the fore the whole issue of what does "song" actually mean - especially in the Crow family, more noted for their coarse noises than their delicate ones.
But before I describe the sounds this fascinating bird makes I must first tell you a little about its lifestyle. In Switzerland it is found above about 1,000m throughout the alps, it also occurs in the Jura but is less common there. We are on the western edge of its range as it occurs across Russia to the Pacific coast and also in the Himalayas.
Although it will eat a wide variety of food It is highly dependent (especially in winter) upon large nutritious seeds and in our region takes hazelnuts, chestnuts and especially the seeds of the Arolla Pine (Pinus cembra). The relationship with the latter is interesting as the tree seems to be completely dependent upon the Nutcracker to disperse its seeds which are heavy (8-12 mm) and without wings and so they are not dispersed by the wind. The Arolla Pine cones begin to ripen in July and throughout August and September the Nutcracker is very active as it collects the cones, often taking them to a special rock or tree stump which it uses as an "anvil" where it holds the cone with one foot and hammers it open with its large beak. The bird has a large throat sack under the tongue where it collects the seeds and when the sack is full it will then fly off to its territory and prepare a storage cache which may be in the ground, or under moss or lichen on a rock or fallen tree.
It is completely dependent upon these food caches throughout the winter. Imagine, it can collect and store enough food to last for months, and not only that it also needs to be able to find the stores under the snow! Studies have shown that a single bird may collect about 100,000 seeds in hundreds of stores, flying up to 12km to a good food supply and returning with a full throat sack. It also starts breeding early in the spring before the snow melts when it also uses these stores. It must have incredibly detailed knowledge of it territory to be able to find them once the snow falls, it often places them near a landmark of some kind, but despite this between 10-20% of the stores are not found and some of those seeds then germinate and grow new trees and so the bird contributes to the spread of the Arolla Pine. Further east the Arolla Pine is replaced by the Siberian Pine (Pinus sibirica) and exactly the same symbiotic relationship with this bird exists there as well.
But first let's start with the coarse stuff, like the rest of the family the Nutcrackers' most characteristic noise is a harsh rasping call that actually carries a long way through the forest (or maybe I should say over the forest as it is usually made from the top of a high conifer tree - better still if it is one overhanging a cliff):
That example is the usual spacing of this call - you sort of catch it, think to yourself "huh, what was that ?", listen some more and there it comes again; and there is only one bird that makes a rasping noise quite like that.
Here is one that was quite close to me, and you can really hear all the intricacies (yes there are intricacies in this noise), it was recorded in early May, the snow was still melting and there were many small rivulets flowing through the forest which you can hear and I think I was standing in one ! (you'll hear a lot of rivers in the background in this species):
Looking at the sonogram is interesting, the rasping effect is made by small pulses of sound that show up as vertical lines in each call. Each individual call is about 0.4 secs long and contains about 30 pulses of sound - another attestation to the nervous control of a bird's syrinx. Also although it is a broad-band sound with many harmonics the fundamental note starts at about 1.8 Khz, rises in an arc to a peak of about 2.8 Khz before descending towards the end to about 2.3 Khz. In the the sequence I show there is also a small drop in frequency and timing from the beginning to the end so the whole phrase seems to tail away:
Whilst that spacing is what you "usually" hear remember this is a wild animal so as soon as you set a rule it promptly breaks it, soooo you can also hear sometimes a continuous stream of rasping calls like this:
These calls are used for "advertising". What does that mean ? Exactly what it says - it might be conveying "I am here and really beautiful come and get me", or it might be saying "this is my territory get out of here immediately !". Since both male and female have identical plumage they are not very helpful in decoding the language.
These rasping sounds are the noises you are most likely to hear from this bird, but not the only ones. As I said at the start - there is a lot about the Nutcracker that reminds me of a Jay - listen to the start of this and then see what it goes on to do:
Clearly it was a Swiss Nutcracker as it seems to have learned to yodel somewhere ! The point here is that whilst this one started out yelling coarsely like a Jay it later started to do something else - I think it was singing. Singing ?? Come on, that wasn't a song, a song has rhythm and pattern and a beat and is attractive. Yes to us humans, that's our definition, but to a bird, "song" is simply a noise that gets you what you want, usually used in the breeding season. What I mean is that "song" as such does not have to hold our anthropomorphic values, it can be a lot simpler - so long as it gets the needed result.
So, like many other members of the Crow family, Nutcrackers make a variety of subtle and gentle sounds that probably serve the same purpose as the much more aesthetically appealing (to humans) song of say the Nightingale. But like the rest of the family it seems to be a challenge, sometimes the sound can be really beautiful other times it comes out a mangled mess.
A lot of what we might call song in Nutcracker sounds like a series of squeaks and whistles and yelping noises:
But those whistles can be very variable- some are a sort of whining noise like a beaten dog:
and others are much purer in tone and get dangerously close to being beautiful:
Here are those two whistle types on a sonogram, note how the second one is a much purer more focused frequency:
Now let's put some of this together and see what it sounds like:
Amazing isn't it ? This was a group interacting (maybe a family maybe not - who can tell ?), and I edited a chunk of boring stuff out of the middle as you can tell. But notice how every so often it is as though they can't help themselves and break out into a chorus of the rasping call, but then someone else introduces the whistles that almost have a pleading sound (in anthropomorphic terms that is !).......
Here is another application of those whistles by a pair that were flying around as they sang - again the occasional harsh noise - but you can just imagine boyfriend and girlfriend singing to each other and every so often feeling the need to yell out to competitors to stay away - its a struggle all the time in nature I tell you ! :
Finally here is one where I have no clue what was going on at all and I have only ever recorded it the once - two long churring calls like an overgrown grasshopper. I have read (in Cramp and Perrins ) that this may be an alarm call, but I had no context in which to judge that - it was simply another one of those sounds that came my way:
It is a very rapidly produced sound though - I counted them in the sonogram and it makes about 45 sounds each second (hit the pause button on the sonogram player and count them if you don't believe me) - a similar rate to the sound pulses we saw in the rasping call:
So what can we take away from all this ? In my opinion (1) that the Corvidae (Crows) in general are not as harsh and nasty as they are made out to be, they manage their relationships vocally in a very complex way (2) that "song" means different things to different species - its the result that counts most not the methodology (3) that you really do have to pay attention and not take things at face value - look deeply and there are meanings in everything that goes on......