Re: What is subsong?

To: "Syd Curtis" <>
Subject: Re: What is subsong?
From: "Philip A Veerman" <>
Date: Wed, 13 Jan 1999 13:54:10 +1100
Syd asked: What is subsong? That is a very good question. Without stopping
to consult reference books or papers on the subject I'll throw in an opinion
and see what else comes up. I have read, listened, thought and written a lot
about vocal behaviour over recent years. It is probably one of those words
which, if too tightly defined, would inevitably fail to meet precise
boundaries. I would give it a more, rather than a less, tentative
definition. The definition Syd quoted seems as good as one would get,
however I would not have included the bit about the pitch as being relevant
(although of course it may be very much so in some species). In the field I
would only label as subsong a behaviour that was less than what the bird is
capable of. For example Currawongs regularly spend a long time sitting still
and warbling all sorts of weird sounds apparently to themself. It appears
that subsong is a way that some birds get to learn their own call or get
comfortable with the sound of their own voice before settling in their head
on the final product. Subsong is often a complex series of sounds. It
generally is non demonstrative in that it is not directed at any other
individuals. It is the context of the behaviour and the fact that it is very
different to their normally loud signal calls and the other aspects that
match that definition, that would lead to it being appropriately labelled as
subsong. This is not to be confused with birds whose song is never loud,
such as our finches, as their song has a sexual and not a territorial
function. I believe Syd has studied Lyrebirds a lot. It would be interesting
to know if lyrebirds indulge in subsong. My purely of the top of my head
thought is it would seem unlikely, except for young birds just starting out.
-----Original Message-----
From: Syd Curtis <>
To:  <>
Date: Tuesday, 12 January 1999 7:20
Subject: What is subsong?

>Anne Green wrote (08 Jan 1999):
>>A hand reared magpie that called our place home would perch on a power
>>line and give an accurate imitation of our fox terrier dog's bark. And
>>that definitely wasn't subsong either!
>I recall an ABC radio program in which the late Norman Robinson was asked
>about lyrebird mimicry and he mentioned that he had a recording he had made
>of a magpie imitating a horse.  He played the recording and there was the
>magpie's unmistakeable warble which ran on into an excellent rendition of
>the neighing of a horse.  (This was from the forest on the escarpment at
>the back of Perth behind Helena Valley.)  I don't now recall what Norman
>said (if anything) of the circumstances of the recording.
>Can anyone on birding-aus enlighten us as to how to identify sub-song?
>W.H. Thorpe's definition in Landsborough Thomson's "Dictionary of Birds"
>(now some 30 years old) leaves me uncertain:-
>        "This can often be distinguished from full song by being quieter;
>by having song-bursts of longer duration; and by having fundamental
>frequency of the individual notes lower.  This gives the impression that
>the subsong is generally of lower overall pitch;  subsong as at present
>tentatively defined, is also characterised by having a quite different
>temporal pattern or structute as compared with full song (Thorpe &
>(I do not have access to the reference: Thorpe W.H. & Pilcher, P.M. 1958.
>The nature and characteristics of sub-song.  British Birds 51: 509-513.)
>Has subsong since been defined less "tentatively"?
>Syd Curtis at Hawthorne, Q.
>H Syd Curtis

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