Variable Seedeater Song Mimicry

Today’s post is by Scott Viola.  Our children, as some of you may know, learned all 200 yard birds we have at Tranquilo Bay for their science class last year.  Scott truly took to the birds and was especially interested in their songs and sounds.  He has learned to identify many of the birds by sound as well as visually.  Here is a report he prepared for me about a strange phenomenon he encountered.

Panama Bird Song Mimicry

I have acknowledged a phenomenon on which I can find almost nothing: the Variable Seedeater mimics other birds’ songs.

For months after learning the Variable Seedeater’s song in Bocas del Toro, Panama, it made me think of rubbing a wet window with rubber. One day around New Years, I was walking in a semi-open area less than a hundred feet above sea level and heard a string of bird songs issued back-to-back from an elevated position. I was mystified, there being nothing that I could see. I considered that someone had put a playback speaker in a tree, but that was unlikely. After a few minutes, I saw a small, black bird exit the tree, and the calls ceased. I knew what it was, a seedeater or seedfinch, but I didn’t consider that it could have been the thing making the noise. A few days later, I heard it again in a nearby location. This time, I had a clear view and identified it as a Variable Seedeater.

I took two recordings of it singing, and later made videos with text on-screen notifying what bird song it was imitating. I have observed it mimicking Red-lored Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, something that I believe is based on the Groove-billed Ani or the Common Black Hawk, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue-gray or Palm Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Great Kiskadees, Boat-billed Flycatchers (probably), and Roadside Hawk, all of which are common in the area. The seedeater also has a “Brr brr Brrr” sound, and a distinctive, high-pitched “eaw.”

It doesn’t include all the birds every time it sings, but there is a loose order in which it tends to put them: parrots, the Ani or the hawk-like sound, and the rest, often with the Black-cheeked Woodpecker next to the flycatchers. The song lasts around seven to eight seconds, with 3-6 dedicated in the beginning to the parrots, the Ani-like song, and its own add-ons.

The song also changes depending on region, as can be seen on I believe this is caused by the birds it mimics, which are different everywhere. On Xeno Canto, I managed to identify a parrot in the midst of unfamiliar noises. The sounds don’t even make me think of birds; they are higher pitched and from a different place, making it sound like the song I had heard before my epiphany. The seeming randomness is stated in every Variable Seedeater resource I can find, except for one. At “The Sights and Sounds of Costa Rica” (, the author wrote in the section for the Variable Seedeater that it mimics, and had two recordings that clearly contained mimicking. He was hearing the same thing I did. In them, I can tell that the seedeater mimics bird sounds. In one, I hear a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.

Hasta Luego Amiga!

Gina has been with us here as the children’s teacher since March 2008. We have watched the children grow and learn with her love and guidance for over three years now. It has been an amazing experience for all of us. We are sad to see her leave, but we know that it is time for her to move on to do other things. We are all going to miss her, but we are also looking forward to getting to know our new teacher who arrives in July. Gina was able to meet her and believes she will move the children forward in wonderful ways – we also believe this to be true.

Gina uses music by Jack Hartman with the kids in the classroom. Once she told them that she was leaving, there was a special song that the kids began to sing in order to prepare them for her departure. The children sang this song during their spring presentation. I was not the only one tearing up is all I am going to say. Gina has very definitely left a Hand Print on our Hearts!


Hand Print On Our Hearts

On this day we remember all the ways you’ve touched out hearts
On this day we all celebrate that we have been a part
Of your hopes and your dreams
That have shown us where to go
Of your work and your love
That have helped the children grow

Through the years, you’ve taken us so far
And now we’ll carry on when you are gone

So we will work, we will dream
You have shown us where to go
We will hope, we will love
We will help the children grow
Oh, we thank you & promise to go on
Because you have left us
With your hand print on our hearts

Photo Note:

The shirts and dresses are a gift from Marge Viola to Gina and the children. Now whenever they wear the shirts or the dress (and when I take the patches off and save them for them later) they will remember Miss Gina and Grandmarge for handing down such beautiful heirlooms to them all. Gina’s dress originally belonged to Marge. The animal patches on each of the children’s clothes came from the same dress.

Spring School Presentation

Gina worked with Tres and Boty to put together a wonderful presentation of the work the children have completed over the past school year. They did tongue twisters, recited poetry, sang songs, showed us all of the work among other wonderful activities. Here are a few photos of the special ceremony.


Books for a Better World

We all know what a difference a book can make to our own lives. Imagine if you didn’t have easy access to good quality books for yourself. Would you be willing to do something about it? The local island schools down here have very limited access to books.

We have a container scheduled to deliver some goods to us in Panama in July. We know how difficult it is to acquire good quality children’s literature in Spanish at reasonable prices here in Bocas del Toro. So, I contacted Books for a Better World to see about how we might be able to sponsor a library for one of the local public schools. Fortunately, Alice Finn Gartell, President of Books for a Better World thought it was a great opportunity to send books down to Panama.

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We have worked out a sponsorship rate for a small 50 – 60 book library for these schools. Normally, Books for a Better World requires a $350 donation to support this size library. We were able to get a reduced amount because Tranquilo Bay will be providing the transportation from the USA and out to the individual locations to deliver the books.

You can make any contribution toward sponsoring one or more of these libraries. We will group the donations together until we reach the reduced sponsorship amount. Tranquilo Bay will be donating the transportation of up to ten of these libraries from the USA to Panama. We will work with a variety of people to deliver the books out to the individual communities. Please contact me at info @ tranquilobay (dot) com if you are interested in sponsoring one of these school libraries and I will give you the details on how to move forward.