Watching Birds with your Ears
This morning I opened my eyes and saw that it wasn't quite light yet.
So I closed them again and watched the bright red cardinal strike a pose
at the top of the maple tree. "Share!" he proclaimed with a
loud, descending slurred note, but what he meant was that he definitely
would not share our backyard with any other male cardinal.
And then a Magnolia Warbler
moved through middle level of the maple tree, examining each leaf for
insects. It paused from time to time to sing "wheedle wheedle, sweetie-oh,"
just in case a potential mate might be around.
A robin perched on the trembling telephone wire and sang his long, repetitive
song, "Cheerily? Cheer up. Cheerily." Before the sun rose, at
least a dozen species of birds had joined the chorus. And I saw them, every
one, with my ears.
Tune in to bird songs
I had a little help. Michael, my perfect birding spouse, recently installed
a microphone outside our home, which leads to an amplifier and headphones
that deliver the songs of the birds to me as I lie in bed. But you don't
really need a sound system to watch birds with your ears. All you need is
to tune in to their songs. Each species makes sounds that are unique to
itself, and you can identify the birds by those sounds just as easily as
you can by their shape or color.
Indeed, there are
advantages to birding by ear. You can do it in the dark (a useful skill
for identifying owls when you're camping). The barred owl, for example,
sounds competely different from any other sound you hear at night. "Who
cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all."
A bird hidden in dense summer foliage will often sing out its identity
for all who have ears to hear. And although you can see with your eyes only
in the direction you happen to be facing, you can hear in all directions
at once, so you can identify a bird by its song even when it's behind your
We humans live in a different sensory world from most creatures of earth.
Your dog, for example experiences the world mainly through his nose, while
our sense of smell is puny by comparison. It's difficult even to imagine
the sensory impressions taken in by bats or beetles, frogs or fish.
Why we can learn birds' songs
On the other hand, birds' strongest senses are sight and hearing, and
they have evolved ways to communicate and to recognize their own species
by using signals based on those two senses. Because we are also creatures
of sight and sound, we can tap right into all the fascinating distinctions
of color and shape that birds embody, and just as naturally we can appreciate
the sounds that are so important in their lives.
always enjoy watching the House Wrens raise their families, but now I enjoy
seeing them even when they are not in direct line of sight. Because of what
my ears see, I'm often smiling at our baby house wrens, all vying to put
their heads out of the hole in their gourd birdhouse at once and beseeching
their mother with urgent raspy cheeps to hurry up with breakfast.
Every couple of minutes her scolding chatter announces her arrival, and then
the babies cheep even louder in their eagerness to be the one to receive
the morsel she's bringing.
As you begin to recognize bird songs, your own backyard will become a
much more interesting place. For me, it was like gaining supernatural vision,
being able to see through the leaves and around buildings. I was amazed
at how many birds were all around me and how much I had been missing out
How to learn birds' songs
1. Get a field guide to bird songs. Just as you need a book with
pictures to learn what birds look like, you need recordings to learn what
they sing like. Fortunately, there are several excellent tapes and CDs of
bird songs available now. (See Bird Song CDs .)
2. When you hear a bird's song, describe it to yourself in words.
You might notice that the white-breasted nuthatch has a nasal sound to his
"Yenk, yenk, yenk" song, and that each note of the northern cardinal's
song is a slippery, downward slurp, or that the blue jay's call is sometimes
loud and harsh, as if the bird were screaming "Thief!" Making
mental note of such characteristics helps you recognize the bird when you
hear it again.
3. Associate a phrase of English with the song, such as "Peter,
Peter, Peter" for the tufted titmouse. The words will remind you of
the rhythm, speed, or pitch of the song.
It's best when you can fit your own words to a bird's song, but feel
free to use memorable phrases others come up with. The ovenbird is traditionally
reputed to sing out "teacher, Teacher, TEACHER," and it's hard
to improve on "Quick, three beers!" for the olive-sided flycatcher's
Once you ascribe words
to a bird's song, the melody stays with you forever. Chicago no longer means
just a city in Illinois to me. It also takes me back to the manzanita-covered
mountains of the West Coast, where the California quail greets the morning
with loud, ringing "Chi-CAA-go!"
If you're interested in more of this sort of thing, you might want to
check out Tom Lorenzin's wonderful web page devoted to bird
4. After you've become familiar with a few songs, make a point
of listening early in the morning. During the hour before sunrise, many
birds sing. The chorus is lovely to listen to as a whole, but it is also
a pleasure to single out and recognize the individual voices in the choir.
Some birds sing throughout the day, but you'll hear 100 times as much bird
song first thing in the morning as at noon.
At any season, you can see more birds with your ears than you can with
your eyes. So why not give it a go tomorrow morning? Sleep with a window
open, so that you'll hear the birds singing when you first wake up. If you
don't know what they are, try to separate out one song from the rest. Even
though the singer may remain a mystery to you for a while, it will serve
as your inspiration to learn to see with your ears.
-- Copyright 1997 Diane Porter