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Beautiful Bird Songs (And What They Mean)

The Martha Stewart Show, December 2010

That chirping, whistling, and cooing you hear isn't just idle chatter. Birds' vocalizations are a very important method of communication, whether for mating, marking territory, or crying for help.

David Bonter, ornithologist and assistant director of citizen science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, shares the meanings behind some distinctive bird songs on "The Martha Stewart Show."

Bald Eagle

Although many Americans are quite familiar with the majestic appearance of our national bird, the bald eagle's sound is less widely known. David describes it as "wimpy for such a powerful bird." The eagle's high-pitched whistle is mainly used to mark territory or reinforce bonds between males and females.

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Northern Cardinal

One of the most familiar backyard feeder birds east of the Mississippi, the male Northern cardinal croons pleasantly as a way of proclaiming his territory. "Male cardinals are fiercely territorial -- and for good reason," David says. "Studies show that up to 35 percent of chicks in a nest do not belong to the male caring for the young. The females are sneaking around on the side!"

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Common Eider

The common eider is a "sea duck" that lives on the open ocean most of the year. The male's song is a courting call to females, often accompanied by a wing-flapping display. "There are few sounds in nature as wonderful as the cooing call of a common eider," David says.

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Atlantic Puffin

Once near extinction, puffins thrive today because of programs to coax birds to nesting islands using decoys and recordings of "happy" puffins. Both sexes use a "moaning" call to communicate with one another near nesting sites.

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Learn more about birds and their unique sounds at

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