Taking birding to the next level
People who enjoy birds often call themselves bird watchers, emphasizing the visual. Lists of birding equipment start with binoculars and spotting scopes to bring birds closer, and field guides to identify them visually. But the sounds of birds help locate them. “Bird songs can expand your range of detection,” says Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney. Birds can be identified by their voices so accurately that most birds tallied on breeding bird surveys are “heard only.”
Bird songs provide more than an identification tool. Greg notes, “By learning bird sounds, you can step outside and be completely immersed in a world that is radically different from the one we perceive with just our eyes. Learning these sounds can tell you a great deal about the state of affairs in the bird community, giving you a whole new level of understanding of what’s happening moment by moment in their lives.”
How do you learn bird songs? Greg says, “Nothing can supplant the experience of being outdoors watching a Carolina Wren or a mockingbird, its head thrown back and the sound emanating forth. That’s often the moment when the sound is firmly locked in your mind—when it crystallizes so you never forget it.”
Tracking down the source of each sound takes time and effort. Fortunately, there’s a shortcut. Greg notes, “Listening to sounds on bird recordings can give you a leg up. It helps you optimize your time, especially when there’s something you really want to see. You’re not chasing down the common birds time and time again.” Before going to an unfamiliar place to bird, Greg recommends finding out if there is a compilation of bird recordings for the area. (For a list of Cornell audio guides see www.birds.cornell.edu/Shop/AudioGuides.html.) Or you can use an online resource like the Macaulay Library to make your own. You might select the species to study based on which ones you most want to see, or which sounds might be most challenging. “You don’t have to learn everything at once. Start out with a core group—the most common birds in a general area—and once you know those, then when you hear something unusual you know that’s a sound you must go after,” said Greg.
One authority on bird songs, the late Ted Parker, was famous worldwide for his ability to recognize bird sounds. Greg recounts his close friend’s words: “People think I have some extraordinary ability to learn sounds, but I’ve just listened to more bird sounds than all my friends combined. When I watch a basketball game, I have the sound turned off. I’m listening to recordings I made, over and over again. It’s with repetition that these sounds begin to sink in.”
Valuable as recordings are, Greg cautions, “Learning sounds with recordings doesn’t necessarily help you understand the behavior that goes with it. I think that’s one of the rewarding leaps you make when you take that knowledge from studying recordings to stepping outdoors. You can begin to witness how this animal actually lives, and when it vocalizes, you can find out what’s going on, what the context is for each sound. The bird you see may counter-sing with another individual, or be challenged by a competitor. You may see an interaction between a mated pair, or between a parent and fledgling.”
Learning the contexts of bird vocalizations enriches birding experiences. Knowing that the mockingbird singing all night long outside our window is most likely a young male who hasn’t yet attracted a mate, or an older male who lost his mate, gives us a measure of understanding that may soften our sleepless irritation. Knowing that the high-pitched seeee call of a robin is a warning of an aerial predator, we may scan the skies for a glimpse of an approaching Cooper’s Hawk or Merlin. Knowing the two songs of various Dendroica warblers informs us of whether a Chestnut-sided Warbler is trying to attract a mate or defending his territory. We can learn some contexts of bird vocalizations through recordings and resources such as the Birds of North America Online. [update 2/8/22: Birds of North America Online is now part of Birds of the World.] And by tracking down the birds we hear and making careful observations of what is happening while they are singing, we may even figure out the meanings of some vocalizations ourselves.
Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of BirdScope.
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