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Learning Birds' Songs


Titmouse TitmouseIt's the middle of February in chilly Iowa, and hardly any birds are singing.

Which is exactly why it's such a great time to listen to birds! The tufted titmouse has begun his repetitive Peter, Peter, Peter! It positively rings out in the cold morning air.

And because few other birds are singing in this pre-spring month, I can hear another titmouse reply with the same song, but fainter because more distant, from a neighbor's oak tree.

At the height of spring, with the neighborhood bursting with bird song, it will be hard to sort out which bird is saying what. I know it will be wonderful, but if you're trying to learn birdsongs, it can be kind of overwhelming.

Starting in winter

Black-capped ChickadeeThat's why I like to tune up my ears by listening to the first birds to sing in the new year. Around here, after the titmouse the black-capped chickadee starts singing. His two-note song sounds like the first two notes of "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair."

After he sings a his two-note phrase a few times, pausing while other chickadees reply, he changes the pitch and key, beginning the two notes higher or lower, and the responding males may then change their pitch to match.

CardinalOn the 17th of February, the chickadee has been singing for only a few days. About the only other singers at this season are the barred owls, with their baritone Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-alllll. And the enthusiastic northern cardinal, who's already singing Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!

American WoodcockThe woodcock will any day now, enlivening frosty dawns with a nasal, buzzy peent! I leave my window open a crack so that I''ll wake up to his call.

A more distant male woodcock will reply in kind. I wonder if they'll both succeed in attracting mates, and whether they'll nest here in the woods near my home.

And then spring will be in full swing, with its riot of sound. But as much as I love the dawn chorus on an April morning, I must admit that it's easier to learn bird songs in these late days of winter.

Tune in to bird songs

An open window can be a revelation to a person who doesn't get up at dawn. Or go outside for an early morning walk. And of course some of the late-winter singers carry on all day long.

The idea is to tune in to the sounds the birds are making — just start noticing them. 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.

How to learn birds' songs

1. Sound field guide

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 many excellent tapes bird song CDs available now.

2. Describe it!

red-breasted nuthatchWhen you hear a bird's song, describe it to yourself in words. You might notice that the red-breasted nuthatch sounds like a toy tin whistle. 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. Put it in English!

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.

Fit your own words to a bird's song, or use memorable phrases others have discovered.

California quailOnce you put 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!

4. Get up with the birds

After you've become familiar with a few songs, make a point of listening early in the morning, especially in spring. 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.

The thrill of success

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.

Diane PorterIf 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.

© 2009 by Diane Porter.


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