Did You Hear That?
Anyone attempting to promote easy birding has to include a word or two on the importance of bird vocalizations. Listen. Listen. Hearing birds and knowing who said what makes for easy birding. That is why this chapter is the shortest one in the lot.
Non-birders and birders have all heard, no pun intended, that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. However, not all maxims are true. There are plenty of birds floating around that look, sort of, like ducks. I have heard people call murres, guillemots and even gulls, ducks simply because they are on water. Of course, none of those birds quacks like a duck. A true quack, one that reminds us of Donald, one that if spelled would be spelled q-u-a-c-k would be a duck all right, but which kind of duck. If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck it is a Mallard, one of the most ubiquitous ducks in North America. There are a couple other species closely related to Mallard that quack, but other ducks whistle, wheeze, grunt, chuckle and chatter, but do not quack.
Very roughly speaking, vocalizations of birds come in two basic sounds, quacking and non-quacking. Birds produce calls and they produce sounds that we might construe as songs. Maybe the birds think they are singing, but filing in our brain the raspy “song” of an Anna’s Hummingbird as a song may make more sense if we call it hummingbird noise. However, that horrible sound means, here I am, this is my territory, and I am horny. That is something to sing for, space and a place to have sex. When a Hermit Thrush tunes its melodious pipes, it song essentially has the same meaning. It is still noise, but the order of notes and quality of sound is pleasing. Hayden would have covered his hears if he could have heard modern composers.
One of the big differences between the hummingbird and the thrush is classification. Not to get off topic, and despite what some people might believe, reason, along with loads of facts, is the basis of classification of birds from reasons. Our two subject birds happen to belong to two distinct categories, nonpasserine in the case of the hummingbird and passerine in the case of the thrush. Some people call passerine species songbirds. Sure, most sound sweet, warbling and trilling all over the place, putting to shame the others, the unsung species, aka, the nonpasserines. Regardless of category, all birds need to mark their territory. They do not have scent glands and their poop is often too insignificant to stand for a no trespassing sign. Just the sight of them is not always enough. Some vocal advertising helps, especially since most nonpasserines, excluding hummingbirds and a few others cannot rely on colorful plumages for communication. They need to sound off. And, like all of us, they get horny. The nonpasserines do the best they can, they sing, sometimes unmusical, but they sing.
Vocalizations outside the domain of song are all kinds of calls ranging to almost horrifying sounds to pitiful sounds bringing out the mother in even the unwavering of male birders. Calls may be akin to us saying yikes, eek or oh s-h- t. The latter probably is what we hear from a suddenly flushed Wilson’s Snipe or at least that is what they may be thinking when they are forced to fly. Calls may also be to warn other birds of danger. Many species call to each other as a means of staying in a group such as closely spaced bushtit and Cedar Waxwing flocks or nocturnally migrating thrushes, warblers and vireos to name a few. Birds also emit calls to locate their young and young to locate their parents.
Besides vocalizations, some birds communicate by wing flapping (grouse), wing or tail whistling for lack of a better term (hummingbirds and others) and drumming on a hard surface (woodpeckers). There is more to sounding off, but not here.
What is an easy birder to do? It is important that you see the bird as it produces the sound you are hearing. That helps your memory. What was the bird doing? That will help identify the basic type of vocalization. Was the bird perched in the open, maybe on a fence post or wire, at the apex of a tree, or a limb that gives the bird a good view? Chances are your bird is singing. That is what Anna’s Hummingbirds do and that is what Indigo Buntings, meadowlarks do, and so do other musically schooled species. If the bird you are watching is moving around but occasionally vocalize, it may not be singing, it might be maintaining its space with others in its feeding flock. Watch juncos and see them bickering when one of their kind gets too close to them. Not all habits are readily apparent. Warblers often sing while they forage, which is apparently accepted bird etiquette.
With the help of behavior, you now have a good idea whether you are hearing a song or a call. Now, try to characterize the sound. Most people have already done this in the world of music. By listening to music, it is possible to name that tune relatively quickly, even identifying different symphonies by the same composer from hearing only the first measure. The same is possible by listening to birds. It is a repetitive process requiring practice, practice and more practice.
How is it possible to remember what you hear? One tool that helps is a CD of bird vocalizations. Beside old-school recordings, you can now carry on your smart phone or some other similar device, aka computer, bird vocalizations that you can either check for identification. Purchase of these is possible at your finer birding stuff stores and online, of course. While you are on the web, there are also many online sources providing bird vocalizations such as the site “what bird.” That site lets you list species from a geographic area such as a state or province. Click and find the listen button and there you go. Start with your local area before listening to birds from strange lands, and then go forth as they say, and find the bird on the CD. Repeat reviewing the CD and then go birding again to try matching up what you have heard on the CD to actual birds. Repeat and repeat some more.
Some of the species you hear recorded seem to be saying words. Killdeers seem to be saying kill-dee, just as some folks drop the “r” in certain words. Chuck-will’s-widow seems to be saying chuck-will’s-widow, without a New England accent. Others produce memorable sounds. When hearing “thimk,” think Common Yellowthroat. One of the funniest sounding birds is the Willow Ptarmigan. Spike Jones couldn’t have done better. Territorial Surfbirds seem to be scolding “you-jerk, you-jerk, you-jerk” and boreal Whimbrels have a plaintive whistle reminiscent of a distant tropical tinamou.
The birds producing unique sounds, those seemingly calling out their names, or words that seem unique to either location are helpful. It is doubtful a Whimbrel will cross bills with any species of tinamou, but bird sounds can be as tricky as they are important. Some birds may drop “r’s” just as people. Song Sparrow dialects are well-known. Many other species have dialects, but most are not so different that we cannot identify them to species just as we can understand speaking New Englanders vs. southerners, usually. More importantly, birds can detect the differences and similarities they hear. Not everything is all about the easy birder.
As easy birding becomes more complex, the art of practice, practice and more practice helps maintain our birding effort thereby fooling us that we are continually practicing easy birding. Huh? A seasoned birder may make birding seem easy and perhaps, for them, it is easy birding. However, lots of work went into producing such a situation. Anyway, identifying what is heard becomes increasingly important as an easy birder becomes familiar with more and more species. If identifying warbler songs is easy, how difficult is it to sort out Empidonax flycatchers? That may depend on where you are. In western North American, there are fewer species of warbler and more species of flycatchers than in eastern North America. The flycatcher’s kind of look-alike, but each sings its own tune. Eventually those pesky flycatchers will become easy birds, although re-listening may help fine tune an easy birders brain.
Just as the more birds you see, the easier it is to identifying them at next viewing, the more birds you hear, the easier it will be to identify them at the next concert. Eventually, it will be possible to identify birds by their vocalizations alone.