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On the 12th Day of Christmas Saigoneer Gave to Me: 12 Birdcalls From Across Vietnam

Almost everywhere we go in the world, birdsong abounds.

The little titters and tweets of sparrows gathering over handfuls of tossed rice on Hanoi street corners. The deep, thrumming coo of doves as they wander about with their blank faces and relatively empty heads. The grumpy squawk of gulls stealing French fries or the inscrutable clicks and caws of crows. But how many bird songs could you actually identify?

There are more than 11,000 species of bird in the world, each with their own distinct cries of alarm, of romance, and of community. When you add in regional dialects — yes, birds have those — it is a world of languages nearly double that of us humans. To step into a forest in Vietnam is to enter a public square, and hear those languages spoken. Some seem to match the character of the bird perfectly, like the little chips and whistles that erupt from the charismatic Strawberry Finch. Others will sound entirely alien, like the almost simian howl of the Temminck’s Tragopan.

For this month celebrating sounds at Saigoneer, I’ve put together a little audio safari of some of my favorite birds in the country. We’ll travel from north to south, starting just short of the Chinese border and finishing up in the dry dipterocarp forests of southern Vietnam.

1. Temminck’s Tragopan / Gà lôi tía

Tragopan temminckii

Audio from Chubzang via Xeno-Canto.

Cryptic, secretive and remarkably difficult to photograph. This bizarre-looking pheasant ranges primarily through the highlands of China and India, though they maintain a small outpost in northern Vietnam. I shot this one on the slopes of Fansipan, where it foraged and let out its great gibbon-sounding calls into the mist.

2. Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler / Hoạ mi đất họng trắng

Erythrogenys gravivox

Audio from Ray Tsu 诸仁 via Xeno-Canto.

Keeping things weird a little farther south in Mù Cang Chải is this curve-billed air-goblin, which I shot perched amongst some ripening táo mèo. With an unexpectedly cute call, this Scimitar Babbler sounds like a pair of frogs that really want to make friends.

3. Red Avadavat / Mai hoa

Amandava amandava

Audio from He Wenjin/ 文进 via Xeno-Canto.

Sticking in Mù Cang Chải for a moment longer, we find the Red Avadavat, also known as the Strawberry Finch — a superior if less popular name. These gregarious seed-eating birds love farmland, which is why almost any recording of their happy squeaks will include farm sounds in the background.

4. Mandarin Duck / Uyên ương

Aix galericulata

Audio from Stanislas Wroza via Xeno-Canto.

Jumping over to the east before we head farther south, these spectacular ducks appear every winter in Ba Bể Lake — don’t look now, but they’re about to arrive again. Given that they are not your average duck, it should be no surprise that they don’t say “quack.” Their hoarse, high yapping sound is a call of alarm, which is why you will usually hear it fading into the distance as they leave your peeping ass behind.

5. Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher / Đớp ruồi họng hung

Ficedula strophiata

Audio from Geoff Carey via Xeno-Canto.

Down out of the highlands and into Hanoi, where the parks and riverbanks can be a stopover for some surprising species. That includes this Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, a lover of high-altitude forests who showed up in the botanical gardens some years back. Its call is a high, insistent, adorable little peep.

6. Dark-necked Tailorbird / Chích bông cổ sẫm

Orthotomus atrogularis

Audio from Sam Hambly via Xeno-Canto.

Time to leave the north behind for Hà Tĩnh Province, where I shot this fancy boy. It isn't the most beautiful of birds, but the Tailorbird is quite amazing — it will pierce the edges of leaves and literally sew them together with threads of plant fiber or stolen spider’s silk to make it nest. Bonus: its call sounds like a recording of a xylophone played poorly, at 2.5x speed.

7. Crimson Sunbird / Hút mật đỏ

Aethopyga siparaja

Audio from Bram Piot via Xeno-Canto.

Beautiful and quite common, I shot this sunbird in Quảng Bình. There are actually 146 different species in the sunbird family, and their calls can be hard to distinguish. It sounds, more or less, like “tweet, tweet, tweet.” Rather boring. But he makes up for it with his looks.

8. Stripe-throated Bulbul / Bông lau họng vạch

Pycnonotus finlaysoni

Audio from Brian Cox via Xeno-Canto.

The bulbuls represent another big extended bird family — 166 species, all told — but once again I’ve picked one of the prettier ones. I shot this Stripe-throated Bulbul in Bạch Mã National Park, right in the center of Vietnam. His lilting call sounds like an Italian making an argument out of an open window.

9. Red-tailed Laughingthrush / Khướu đuôi đỏ

Trochalopteron milnei

Audio via Xeno-Canto.

Heading southwest towards the Laotian border, you will arrive at the Ngọc Linh Nature Reserve. Permission from local authorities is required to enter, but if you can get that, you have a chance to see one of the most stunning birds in the world — the Red-tailed Laughingthrush. Their call is as ostentations of their plumage — imagine a siren, followed by an insane laugh. A giddy arsonist, running from the police.

10. Rufous-Faced Warbler / Chích đớp ruồi mặt hung

Audio from Ray Tsu via Xeno-Canto.

The ambivert of the bird world. The Rufous-Faced Warbler is often difficult to see and can be identified by their cricket-sounding calls rather than by sight. But at the same time, they love the company of other species, traveling in mixed feeding flocks. Which is why you’ll hear so much social commotion in the audio here. I shot this shy party-boy in Măng Đen.

11. Banded Kingfisher / Sả vằn

Lacedo pulchella

Audio by Joshua Chong via Xeno-Canto.

A big leap south now to Đồng Nai Province, where I shot this lovely Banded Kingfisher just outside of Cát Tiên National Park. Here he is about to deliver a juicy caterpillar to his babies — a good dad, this kingfisher. Their calls aren’t the typical cackling laugh of their relatives, but a mournful trill that descends into the forest like bittersweet song.

12. Green Peafowl / Công lục

Pavo muticus

Audio by Marc Anderson via Xeno-Canto.

For our final bird, we step into Cát Tiên National Park and find Vietnam’s answer to the peacock — the Green Peafowl. Males of this species look like shimmering dragons when they fly. Females may lack the long tail but they keep those stunning green feathers. And their call is one of the most amazing things about them — a trumpeting hoot that can carry far across the forest. There is a questioning quality to it. “Where are you?” they seem to say.

In a forest filled with languages, all the birds can answer back. Here we are. Right here.

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