How To Learn Bird Songs
by Georgann Schmalz, Birding Adventures, Inc.
Frustrated by those little irritating songs and chips emanating from an early morning avian orchestra? Or are you just trying to improve your birding skills by adding bird song identification to your already complicated life?
As a novice birder matures, it quickly becomes apparent that ninety percent of birding is half listening (forgive me, Yogi Berra). An experienced birder rarely relies solely on sight when either casually birding or seriously conducting surveys and counts. In fact, since some species frequently forage and skulk entirely hidden from view and other species look nearly identical to one another, song recognition is imperative if you wish to raise your birding skills to a higher level.
Why do birds sing in the first place? A song indicates the type of bird, its sex, its age, its breeding condition, and whether it is paired and mated. For example, a male American Robin sings, "I am a virile, sexy male robin; I have an established territory of six acres with a view; and I am looking for a mate to share same and raise a family."
Birds also make other noises, like chip notes, for many reasons including: to hold a flock together in dense foliage or during nocturnal migrations, to intimidate and drive away enemies or competitors, to convey information about food or predators, and to serve as an identification "password".
How do you go about learning these songs and chip notes? First, forget everything you have ever heard or wished about bird song identification being easy and quickly learned. Only extremely gifted people can master birding by ear quickly. Birders who point out and label a faint "zipp" from a brushy field half a mile away without even pausing in their conversation have been at this a long, long time. In fact, probably too long.
Learning bird songs takes patience, perseverance, and persistence, along with a good ear, a good tutor, and a good deal of practice. The best method is to bravely venture out with a patient teacher who never tires of endlessly telling you, "that's a Carolina Wren; that's a Carolina Wren, that's a Carolina Wren, that's a Carolina Wren." And just when you think it's safe, this same saintly person will devilishly throw out, "that's a Carolina Wren's aggressive chip note, but the one before that was its contact trill note" so on and so on as the bird goes through its repertoire of 700 million noises.
With or without a tutor, nothing, absolutely nothing, is better than watching a bird sing. It always seems like the more effort you put into finding a bird and watching those beautiful notes pour out of its little throat, the better you will learn that song. After all, who wants to go through that effort of finding the little guy again?
The next best method is watching a video of a bird singing. Cold, snowy winter days are perfect for pluncking yourself down in front of the computer and spending time with one of the birding CD-ROMs.
New technology such as an iPod can also provide you a real boost up the learning curve. An iPod can organize all your bird tunes into playlists by families, habitat, sound-alikes, or any other convenient system you desire for learning bird songs.
Travelling in your car? Just slide in a CD or tape of bird songs or turn on your iPod. Remember to keep your windows rolled up, however. Strange squeaky noises escaping from your car may draw some undesired attention. Visit your local birding store or browse through any birding magazine or website to find details on CD ROMs, tapes and CDs, or iPods for bird songs. Some of the recordings are tutorial, teaching you how to listen and what to listen for. Others simply play the birds' songs in phylogenetic order.
Once you have secured a source of songs, try to incorporate a few hints to birding by ear:
1. Learn your common birds first. Use them as your standard for new songs that appear during migration or when you travel. In other words, if you know an American Robin's song, then you can compare it to the similar songs of Scarlet Tanagers, Summer Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
2. Train yourself to listen for each song, not the entire chorus. It's like listening to a symphony played by your favorite orchestra. You want to pick out the oboe, then the flute, the viola the cello, etc.; finding individual notes from each instrument. This is probably the most difficult part of hearing bird songs because some are quieter than others, or farther away, higher pitched, shorter in duration, or sung only once every three minutes. Try to hear and identify the closest, loudest, most obvious songs first. Then ignore them and listen in between for farther away, softer songs.
3. Use gimmicks. If a bird sounds like squeaky brakes, make a note of it. If another one sounds like your
mother-in-law, write that down. You can make up your own voice gimmicks or you can use the widely
accepted ones that even the best birders in the world use. There gimmicks are called mnemonics or
memory hints for bird songs. Keep this list handy or commit it to memory and you will be surprised how
much these little birds have to say to you.
Georgann Schmalz is a past president of the Atlanta Audubon Society, an inspiring teacher and a tireless advocate for bird conservation and education. She currently lives north of Atlanta, GA, and leads tours for her company Birding Adventures, Inc. This article appears with her permission and is also available on her web site here: Learning Bird Songs.
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