Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My guide to birding by ear

One thing I have heard many birders say over and over again is that they have a hard time with bird songs. I think the most common complaint is that it's hard to remember what song goes with with what bird. Never mind keeping all the little call notes straight (how can a "chip" sound possibly be made so many different ways?!) And songs of first year males versus more mature males? Forget about it!

I'm certainly no pro birder, and I've got a LOT to learn yet when it comes to bird song, but I feel pretty confident in my ability to ID quite a lot of birds just by ear, and I like to think I pick it up pretty fast. So I dedicate this post to all my fellow birders, pro and amateur alike, and give you my tips for birding by ear, based on my own personal experience. Here we go, in no particular order.

-Don't think of it as bird song - think of it as the voices of your friends.
As corny as it may sound, I do think of the birds as my friends, and I tend to greet them as I come across them in the yard and in the woods. I feel like when I hear the birds, I know just who among my friends is around at a given moment. This past weekend at the Wilds, trip leader Jim McCormac brought up a very good point that I have often thought of myself: Think of the birds songs the way you would your friend's and family's voices - how many people do you know just by the sound of their voice? You can know the birds the same way.

-Create whatever mnemonics you need to make a connection in your head.
Lots of folks hear the Carolina Wren saying "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle", but sometimes that song sounds different to me, like "Cheater, cheater, cheater" or "Secret, secret, secret" (this morning it sounded like "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger"!). The Acadian Flycather is typically coined as saying "Peet-ZA!", but it doesn't sound that way to me at all. To me it sounds more like an emphatic version of what the Pheoebe says - a very short, staccato version of "fe-BE!" Use whatever works for YOU to help you remember.

-Start small, start easy.
Start with what you know. I'm sure we all have backyard birds that we would know the sound of blindfolded. Start with those guys. Go beyond the basic "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" of the Carolina Wren, and start listening for other sounds they make. Like the sweet little "Cheer!" call, or their raucous scolding sounds, among others. This leads into my next point...

-Spend as much time with the birds as you can.
Whether it's in your own backyard, your favorite park, at the beach/ocean/lake, along a bike trail, in the meadow... Whatever habitat is most accessible for you, go there as much as you can and spend time with the birds. Watch them, listen to them. I am fortunate enough to live on a heavily wooded plot of land, so we get lots of woodland birds. Due to their constant presence I have been able to learn subtle nuances of birds like the Eastern Phoebe (song, chip, and a funny little trill call), the scolding calls of Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren, and many variations of the Eastern Towhee's song ("Drink your teeeeea!", "tow-HEE," "che-WINK," and "WE-cher").

-Make a visual connection if you can.
I know this one can be difficult, especially with skulkers like Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and countless warblers. However, seeing the bird sing can help make the link your mind that will cement the song and/or call in your brain for good. It's what helped me identify a string of "Cheer!" calls with the Carolina Wren, and the fantastically short little bubble-burst of song from the Henslow's Sparrow.

-Spend time with other birders.
Go on bird walks and bird field trips. I've never been on a bird walk that didn't address bird song. You'll be amazed at what you'll learn when you're among others who love birds just as much as you do. Everyone always wants to share anecdotes about their birds, and you just might pick up a vital clue to a mystery bird from a fellow birder!

-Try to learn at least one song on your own.
This is another powerful tool in birding by ear. The first song that I really learned on my own was that of the Wood Thrush. It was the second spring after I had really gotten into birding when I heard those ethereal flute-like notes and said "Holy cow, what is that?! I've got to find out!" It took several days of sifting through sound files on Cornell's site, but I finally stumbled across it. It was particularly tricky because I had no visual sighting of the bird, but also all the more rewarding. That was my "spark bird" of bird song, and since then I've made it a goal to learn more and more songs! (My thanks to Kelly for reminding me of this tip in relating how she learned the song of the Red-eyed Vireo!)

-Find auditory resources.
From BirdJam to the Cornell Lab's website to book/CD combos, there's lots of good auditory resources out there to help you learn bird songs. Use them often. You'll be delighted when you finally hear a song in the field that you remember from the CD you listened to last night.

-Don't try to learn all the birds at once.
I know there's a lot of birds singing out there all at once, and it can be a bit overwhelming. Like being in a room full of people, all the voices kind of blend into a dull roar. Instead of trying to know them all, pick one or two voices out of the crowd and concentrate on them. Some will be fairly easy and you'll be able to move on to someone new. Others will take more work. That's okay.

-Reinforce what you do know.
There's nothing wrong with calling out the bird's name when you hear it sing. That will only help you remember it better. I finally learned the Acadian Flycatcher's song at the Wilds, and now I can definitively say that we have those drab little birds in our woods. But since the song is still relatively new to me, I call out "Acadian Flycatcher" every time I hear it to help reinforce the connection (perhaps to my hubbie's dismay).

-Don't be afraid to be wrong.
Sometimes you may get a song or call note associated to a bird it doesn't belong to. There are so many birds that are described as sounding like a "Robin with a sore throat" that they are bound to get mixed up in your head, especially when you're first starting out. Don't worry if you get it wrong sometimes! I still have trouble distinguishing between a Flicker's "kek-kek-kek" call and that of a Pileated Woodpecker. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are very tricky for me, too. And this weekend at the Wilds I heard a deep "wheep" sound in the woods that I thought was the Great-crested Flycatcher, but sometimes it was actually Yellow-breasted Chat or White-eyed Vireo.

-Let go, and have fun.
While I think we would all like to improve our birding skills, whether it be visual ID or auditory ID (or nest ID, feather ID, etc.), sometimes you've just got to let all of that go and enjoy the birds for what they are, whether you know them or not. This will add greater depth and appreciation to a hobby that is already rewarding to you.

It's so hard for me to believe that I've gone through so many years of my life not REALLY hearing the birds and not REALLY seeing them until I suddenly opened my eyes and ears to them when I "got into" birding seriously 4 years ago. As I mentioned at the top of this post, there's still a lot for me to learn about birds and bird songs, but it's an education I look forward to continuing. I hope you found this to be helpful.

If any of you have any other birding by ear suggestions, or stories about how you've learned bird songs, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!


Birdnerd said...

Heather, this is excellent advice!! I've taught a birding by ear class for the last five years and have never been able to capture it all so succinctly as you just did. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and keep on keeping on!

Kelly said...

...Wow! You go girl. What a wonderful post with so much great info. I really enjoyed reading it. I laughed out loud because when I was reading your "Teakettle" mnemonic for the Carolina Wren, I was thinking, "to me it always sounds like Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger!" ...and then you followed with that's how it sounds to you. (I guess our minds must run towards food....) I'm with you on the Acadian Flycatcher also, it doesn't sound like Peet-za to me either--more like a simple Reee--ree. Maybe our Ohio birds have an accent...

...also, thank you for mentioning how I learned the song of the Red-eyed Vireo! That was a surprise to come across!

Kathiesbirds said...

Excellent post with well written tips. Though I grew up knowing certain common bird calls/songs like blue jays and crows, it was only recently that I made an effort to learn to bird by ear. Now it frustrates the heck out of me when I hear a bird song that I don't know because it means there might be a bird I haven't seen yet! It only spurs me on to learn more. I think I can ID about 50 bird by song so far. I have never actually counted. Now you've got me curious!

Ginnymo said...

Great post Heather! I have learned the sounds of a few birds for the first time this year. Seems I only knew the Robin all my life..ha! Now I know the Tufted Titmouse and the Black-Capped Chickadee and the Nuthatch. Oh! And the Crows of course. I guess I know more than a few now! I'm proud of myself..Ha! I know when the Pileated Woodpecker is around but can never see him. I use the web to hear sounds sometimes. For my bigger animals also. Like the fox. Great info Heather! Thanks.

Meg said...

Wonderful post, Heather! Thank you! I have learned the Whipporwill's song this year. My husband pointed it out to me and now in the evenings when I go outside for something, I'll hear it singing.
Birdsong is one of the most beautiful things in nature, I feel. When I worked at the Conservatory in Columbus, every morning in the spring and summer, a sparrow of some kind would be singing on top of a large blue spruce when I entered the building. It filled me with joy every time.

Monika said...

Great stuff Heather. One of the biggest ones for me is seeing the bird sing - once I've succeeded in seeing that I've made the permanent connection. Whenever I've only heard a bird in the field, then come home and try to ID it using acoustic samples, I always end up doubting myself at least a little bit.

How can a "chip" possibly be made in so many different ways?! SO TRUE! I often get frustrated with the written mnemonics in my bird field guides, but the other day a fellow naturalist shared a white-crowned sparrow mnemonic that I'll never forget: "Oh me, pretty pretty me!"

Anonymous said...

I try to listen to the songs and think of the right bird but something always confuses me. I have a lot of birds on My Birds Blog that would be nice to have their calls with them but it was more than I wanted to do at the time.

You might like to read the story about us almost moving to Alaska...

Homesteading in Alaska

The Early Birder said...

Heather, I think you must have been reading my mind. A very well written post & very informative. Using your ears to locate a species especially when you don't initially recall who it belongs to & spending time listening even to your common 'friends' often leads us to ID 'new' sounds & species that we would otherwise ignore.
One of my friends (now departed) lost his sight very late in his life but still came out with me just to hear the sounds. His recollection & descriptions were often absolutely correct.

Heather said...

Thank you for all the great feedback, everyone. It was great to hear your individual stories!

Laura - Thank you, I take your comments as a sincere compliment since you've been teaching classes for so long!

Kelly - That is so funny that you also hear the C. Wrens saying "Cheeseburger"! Our birding minds seem to work a lot alike (and yes, anything that I can associate with food, I'm all about that!) I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Kathie - Thank you for sharing that. Now that you mention numbers, I'm curious about the number I can ID by ear. I'll have to try to tally that sometime! I bet your number's higher than 50, simply because you've lived in such different parts of the country!

Ginny - That's great to hear that you've learned some new bird sounds this year! And the sounds of mammals are good to know, too! I find that I use the web quite a bit to learn or check on sounds.

Meg - Ah the Whippoorwill - that's one sing you either love or hate. Personally I like it quite a bit. I'm glad to know that birdsong gives you such joy!

Monika - I'm with you: just hearing it and then "looking it up" at home is tricky. Being able to see who's singing is SO helpful! I like the White-crowned Sparrow mnemonic. That's a bird I've only seen once, so I'm not very familiar with it.

Abe - It can certainly get confusing. When I feel overloaded, I kind of block out trying to ID them and just enjoy them instead.

Frank - Thank you, I'm glad you liked it. Your story about your friend is amazing - it's good he still enjoyed birding even though he couldn't see them. That's true love and appreciation for the birds.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

The Wood Thrush would probably be the one I'd name in getting me most interested in song--and now I can hear his voice even in the most sound dense areas.
I guess that just illustrates the fact that with repeated hearing and study, it eventually sinks in--well.

My greatest complaint, though, is that so often I hear a call, and never find the bird making it. It makes the ID uncertain and frustrates me to no end!!!!!

Heather said...

Nina - Thanks for sharing your story. I understand about not being able to see the dang bird, though. It's very hard in late spring and summer. Yesterday I heard a bird scolding me from behind the leaves, and I was so sure it was a Carolina Wren, but I was actually able to see it and it turned out to be a White-eyed Vireo. Guess you can never take the noises for granted!