I knew that the time would come when I’d have to commit to learning bird songs in earnest. I’ve toyed with the idea before, even laughed that yes, I was on my way to becoming one of those birders, downloaded an app, and then proceeded to abandon the whole enterprise after I nearly drove my husband and myself crazy by singing along to a bird call CD while driving. (I don’t recommend this approach.)
And, honestly, knowing bird calls wasn’t exactly urgent on my to-do list. You see, recognizing bird calls in the winter helps, but it’s not essential. Since the trees are bare, you can spot almost anything that’s out there.
But spring is a whole other story. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly trees don their immense cloaks of foliage, and then it’s next to impossible to spot a warbler nervously flitting from branch to branch and thwarting my gaze by deliberately hiding behind a leaf. Being able to bird by ear gives you a tremendous advantage. Knowing exactly which bird you’re looking for makes it infinitely easier to spot and no longer renders the enterprise akin to playing “Where’s Waldo” while blindfolded.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been spending Saturday mornings at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Not only do the people there display incredible professionalism and stunning knowledge about the bird world, but they have also trained their ears to perceive the most incredible modulations and sonorous detail.
People who know bird songs also engage in thrilling bird-description-talk, which can rival the most subtle literary analysis. For instance, I learned that a rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like a robin on speed or like a robin that’s had singing lessons. And the scarlet tanager sounds like a robin singing with a cold.
And so I decided to begin with what every bird book suggests: I started learning common bird calls. I thought I had mastered the red-winged blackbird’s nasal, gurgling omnipresent yelp (so unsuited to the bird’s lustrous demeanor) until I arrived at Leslie Spit. It was here that I discovered that the red-winged blackbird actually makes about ten different sounds, including all sorts of bizarre staccato greetings and a sad whistling groan (with a slight decrescendo at the end). Though I was demoralized, I tried not to show it. Instead, I moved on to a beautiful new bird whose song is associated with what seemed like the easiest ever mnemonic, or memory aid: “drink your tea”. How could I not recognize the Eastern towhee now?
Well, the problem with mnemonics is that I began to hear every single bird singing, “drink your tea”. By my calculations, based exclusively on my newly acquired song-recognition skills, there would have been over a hundred Eastern towhees in Tommy Thompson Park that morning. In reality, according to census, there were about four.
Mnemonics are tricky. It’s one thing to memorize them, and another to actually hear them amidst a plethora of other songs. I find it challenging to resist the temptation to impose the mnemonic on every sound I hear around me.
The process of learning to listen is truly humbling. Though I review the bird songs I’ve been exposed to over the course of the day at home, with my handy Audubon app, I can’t yet detect the songs amidst the abundance of other calls I hear in the field. But slowly, I’m beginning to point out the cardinals, and the robins, and the red-winged blackbirds, and chickadees, and I can sense incremental progress. And, I can already imagine how rich the rewards are going to be.
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.