Name That Tune

Give your bird­song ID skills a boost.

Birds & Blooms - - Contents - By Kenn and Kim­berly Kauf­man

step into the back­yard on a sum­mer morn­ing and you’re likely to be greeted by a cho­rus of chirps and trills. Robins are car­ol­ing and chick­adees are singing chick­adee-dee-dee-dee. Sud­denly, a dif­fer­ent tune, a snappy wi­chity-wi­chity, stands out from the oth­ers. A search along the hedge be­hind the gar­den re­veals a yel­lowthroat, a new bird for your yard!

Al­most all birds make some kind of sounds, and most give both calls and songs. Calls are usu­ally short notes, like the tchip from a cardinal, and you may hear them in all sea­sons. Songs are usu­ally longer and more com­pli­cated, and they’re typ­i­cally heard in spring and sum­mer. Any time is a good time to be­gin bird­ing by ear.

Start with Your Back­yard Friends

Be­cause learn­ing all the songs may seem over­whelm­ing at first, re­mem­ber that you don’t have to master ev­ery one at once. A good way to nar­row it down is to be­gin at home, fo­cus­ing on the songs of your most com­mon back­yard vis­i­tors. Spring and sum­mer are when birds are most vo­cal, so make plans to spend ex­tra time out­doors in those sea­sons. Watch the chick­adees, nuthatches, goldfinches and jays in your yard, but lis­ten to them, too. After learn­ing to rec­og­nize back­yard feath­ered friends by voice, build on that base­line knowl­edge to iden­tify other birds in your area.

Branch Out

A visit to wildlife hot spots pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to search for birds in dif­fer­ent habi­tats. In­vest­ing the time to learn what birds pre­fer wet­lands, for­est or grass­lands helps nar­row down the num­ber of bird species you hear. For ex­am­ple, chip­ping spar­rows and swamp spar­rows sing sim­i­lar songs

but pre­fer dif­fer­ent habi­tats. If you are near a big marsh and hear a bird singing a rapid se­ries of chip notes, chances are good that it’s a swamp spar­row. A sim­i­lar song in your back­yard, with no wet­land habi­tat nearby, is more likely to be from a chip­ping spar­row.

Tricks of the Trade

When you lis­ten to a bird’s song, take an ex­tra step and de­scribe it to your­self. Is it a long song or a short one? Is the tone clear, buzzy or rough? Is the pitch high or low? Are some sounds re­peated over and over? Think­ing about these ques­tions, and even writ­ing down a de­scrip­tion of the song, will help to ce­ment it firmly in your mem­ory.

Speak­ing of mem­ory, a mnemonic (the first “m” is silent) is a learn­ing trick that helps you re­mem­ber things. If you can match the pat­tern of a bird­song to a se­ries of words, that mnemonic will help you re­mem­ber it later. For in­stance, it might be eas­ier to re­call the eastern towhee’s three-part song if you think of it as say­ing drink your tea. Or the yel­low war­bler’s lovely song as sweet-sweet-sweet, I am so sweet. And while some bird­ers hear the white-throated spar­row singing oh, sweet Canada-canada-canada, oth­ers think it sounds more like old Sam Pe­abody-pe­abody-pe­abody.

Prac­tic­ing bird­song mnemon­ics can also be a fun game to play with kids. Young­sters get a kick out of re­peat­ing the song of a Carolina wren as teaket­tle-teaket­tle-teaket­tle. Or the tune the Amer­i­can goldfinch sings dur­ing its bouncy flight as potato chip, potato chip, potato chip. Or the mag­nif­i­cent barred owl’s hoot­ing as who cooks for you? who cooks for you all?

Tools of the Trade

From books and CDS to Youtube tu­to­ri­als and many phone apps, bird­ers will find a plethora of tools for learn­ing bird songs. And while many of these tools are very help­ful, there’s no re­place­ment for spend­ing time out­side watch­ing for birds and lis­ten­ing as they sing.

One im­por­tant point to re­mem­ber about us­ing bird­song apps for your phone: Use them care­fully in the field be­cause birds are sen­si­tive to dis­tur­bances, es­pe­cially dur­ing the nest­ing sea­son. When a nest­ing bird hears a song from an app, it my leave the nest to de­fend its ter­ri­tory from the “in­truder.” This can cause the nest to fail. At some wildlife ar­eas and parks, play­ing bird songs is ac­tu­ally il­le­gal. Your high­est pri­or­ity should al­ways be re­spect­ing the birds in their en­vi­ron­ment.

Bird­ing by ear also boosts the num­ber of birds you find and iden­tify and adds to the en­joy­ment of your time out­doors. With some pa­tience and prac­tice, you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate the voices of birds as much as their col­or­ful plumage.

A YEL­LOW WAR­BLER MAY RE­PEAT ITS SWEET SONG UP TO 10 TIMES PER MINUTE.

ID birds by their songs

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