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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.

Magnolia WarblerAnd 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.

Barred owlIndeed, 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 back.

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.

Wren QuickTime MovieI 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 on.

Stokes Bird SongsHow 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 call.

California quailOnce 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 song mnemonics.

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

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