Note Imperfect: The Many Ways We Learn Bird Song

by Mel White
April 15, 2010
how to learn bird song
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Instrumental music seems to me to be the purest art. Admittedly, it’s possible I believe this because the kind of painting I can appreciate ended about 1904, classical dance seems like a bunch of people prancing around in their underwear, and I’m way too familiar with the ingredients of literary sausage.

It’s true, though, that music’s nonrepresentational nature means it’s largely free of the trendiness and politics that plague other forms of expression. Other than timpani simulating thunder, as in the Pastoral Symphony, or two trumpets in half-step imitating taxis in An American in Paris, it’s hard to say anything really concrete with nothing but notes.

And yet music has the ability, as wonderful as it is mysterious, to make us smile, or even laugh or feel exhilarated, and certainly to make us cry. It’s no surprise that the quasi-music of bird song has as often been described emotionally as scientifically—and consequently anthropomorphized as much as anything in the animal kingdom.

Look in nearly any older field guide to find songs described as cheerful, petulant, melancholy, plaintive, and similar adjectives. Now, it’s true that a song can sound melancholy, but the florid descriptions of earlier days commonly attributed emotion to the bird itself, as in “The little singer’s heart bursts with joy as his exuberant song pours forth.…” I think birds are cool, but if they could reason, wouldn’t Tennessee Warblers figure out that they could just stay in Costa Rica every spring rather than flying back to the Yukon?

I consider this stuff when I’m asked to present a program to beginning birders, trying to push them down the path toward learning bird song. We talk about why birds sing (e.g., male Bald Eagles generally don’t need sound to attract attention to themselves; Hermit Thrushes do) and some other basic ideas, and class members nod their heads, Yeah, right. But it all comes down to one question: what’s the best way to remember all those songs?

Okay, here’s the best way: while you’re out in the field, hear a song repeatedly that you don’t know; search for the bird and fail, frustratingly, not once but several times; drag yourself through bushes and across creeks; and then finally spot the singer. This is why I will never forget what a Swainson’s Warbler sounds like. I’ll admit that this is probably impractical for all 10,366 species in the world, but you asked for the best way, right? For 35 years I’ve had no trouble remembering the Swainson’s Warbler’s song, whereas every spring I have to remind myself what a Canada Warbler sounds like. Somehow that certain moment that permanently links sight and sound hasn’t happened with the latter species. Quite possibly, that certain moment involves blood loss, or at least ripped clothes.

The class moves through species that say their names (Killdeer, Eastern Phoebe) and on to attempts to describe bird sounds in human language. Roger Tory Peterson once famously wrote, “A ‘sizzling trill’ or a ‘bubbling warble’ conveys but a wretched idea of the voice of any particular bird,” so the writers of field guides search for ways to turn whistles, buzzes, hoots, and chips into something more definitive. And here is the great divide: real words or nonsense syllables?

Almost everybody would agree that some kind of catchy phrase is best for mnemonic purposes—the downside being that birds don’t, uh, actually speak. One near-exception is “Red Grouse,” the Willow Ptarmigan race in the British Isles, which is described as saying Go back! and does, with truly startling accuracy.

Descriptions of vocalization fall somewhere on the two scales of accuracy and memorability. The best are at the top of both, for example the Barred Owl’s Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? Contrast this with the European Yellowhammer, which is traditionally described by the locally abundant bird watchers of England as saying A little bit of bread and no cheese. This rates high on the memorability scale and very low on the explicitness scale. I get the cheese, but the preceding phrase could just as well be Limburger Cheddar Mozzarella Stilton Swiss—it’s just a jumble. (“Just a jumble” would give but a wretched idea, though.)

The best mnemonic phrases (I say to the class, some of whose eyes have now glazed over) are often those you make up yourself. I decided early on that Swainson’s Warbler (after some tragic occurrence?) says Tear, tear, see the tear, Yellow Warbler says Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet, and Blue-winged Warbler mimics a donkey with its Eee-yaaaw. Years ago as I was preparing for a trip to Belize, I realized that, despite several earlier trips to Latin America, I hadn’t seen a Striped Cuckoo. It occurred to me that I should memorize its song (brilliant deduction) and make a special effort to listen for it. After hearing the recording a few times I concluded that it said, very determinedly, I am Striped CUckoo. You laugh, but it worked for me.

The modern crop of field guides, with their “Just the facts, ma’am” attitude, has less use for catchy phrases, striving instead for clinical accuracy at the expense of memorability. The result is long, impenetrable lines of cryptic syllables such aszrüzrü-trett zrüzrüzrü-trett zrüzrüzrü psit trutrutru-pürrrrrrrrrrurrrrrr vi-vi-vi lülülü zetre zetre… (this from the much-praised European guide by Mullarney et al., describing the Sedge Warbler’s song). Or (for Yellow-whiskered Greenbul in the Zimmerman et al. Kenya guide) chuk, chik, chuk, chip, tsup chik-chik-chik tsuk chik-chik-tsuck. Say that three times fast while emphasizing the difference between tsuk and tsuck.

Diacritical marks abound, particularly in Mullarney, which has more umlauts than a German family reunion, and more boldface than a gossip column. How am I supposed to interpret and remember the Snow Bunting’s swito-süvee-vitüta-süveh? (Although, for all I know, this is a common Swedish toast that means “May you live long and have much reindeer meat!”)

To be fair, the Mullarney crew isn’t shy about using descriptive language. An Egyptian Nightjar sounds like “an oldfashioned 2-stroke engine on [a] fishing sloop” and Cretzschmar’s Bunting is “at times really asthmatic!” These phrases might very well stick in the mind. Along the same lines, I like my description of a Baltimore Oriole’s song as sounding like a tone-deaf person trying to whistle a generic bird song better than, say, “rich, piping whistled notes.”

Returning to the subject of music, we’d all have an easier time if birds sang actual diatonic melodies. Wouldn’t it be great to say, “Oh, c’mon, you know Black-headed Grosbeak—that’s the one that sings ‘People Will Say We’re in Love.’” But, as a New Zealander wrote in 1917, “So far from its being remarkable that bird-phrases should sometimes be the same as human melodies, it is to me remarkable that they are not more often the same.”

The first notes of a Baird’s Sparrow sound like the “fate knocking” motif that begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (And, to complete a circle here, one respected theory claims that this dit-dit-ditdaaaaaah theme came to Beethoven when he heard a Yellowhammer singing in a Vienna park.) When I was in New Guinea, I heard the song of Lesser Ground-Robin, which begins with a nearly note-for-note rendition of the introduction to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I’ve been playing music for 49 years and listening to birds sing for 39 years, and these are the only explicit examples I know—which indeed seems remarkable. After all, the musical scale has only 12 notes and there are 5,000 species of songbirds, plus the odd singing pigeon and barbet. You’d think we’d have more coincidence between bird song and hit song. Apparently, there was no evolutionary benefit for birds to develop into little Andrew Lloyd Webbers.

In the end, I recommend to the class that they buy the “Birding by Ear” series of recordings, and then.… Alas, in learning songs, as in golf and kissing, there’s no substitute for practice, practice, practice: being in the field, listening, being frustrated, learning, forgetting, until finally that moment comes when once and for all you associate Brown-headed Nuthatch with a squeaky toy, or Sedge Wren with an old car starting up, and it sticks.

As for learning songs from written descriptions—best of luck with that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think of the way 19th-century ornithologist John Gould gave up on the Australian Magpie, writing, “To describe the note of this bird is beyond the power of my pen.” I’ve heard it, and I know what he means.

On the other hand, field guides in the region seem, in the years since Gould’s time, to have settled on a standard mnemonic for the song: quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.

And with that I must be going, for I’m off to Loozyana for to see my Suzyanna.

Singing, of course.

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