I am on a quest to make myself irrelevant. I am currently useful as a leader for bird walks and field trips because I pretty much know all the bird songs and sounds. Often, I don’t look for the birds; I just wait for them to tell me where they are. It sure makes life easier. The truth is: learning bird songs is easier than many people realize. In fact, most folks already know more than they think they do. Can you recognize the sound of crows, blue jays, chickadees, doves, geese, loons, robins and gulls? Thought so.
At daybreak, birds sing. Generally, the air is cool and calm, so the voices of the birds carry farther. It’s a time when males feel compelled to attract a mate and defend their territories. And it’s a time when humans say, “Jeepers, who are all those birds?” In mid-May, it’s possible to hear a dozen or more species simultaneously just while you’re retrieving the morning paper. No wonder beginning birders feel overwhelmed. If you’re interested in learning a few songs, it’s easy to chop the task down to size. Gasp in amazement as I reveal the secret:
The most common birds are the most common.
There are more than 300 birds in Maine capable of making noise. But take a walk around your neighborhood and there are perhaps no more than twenty raising the racket. Of those, I’ll bet half the din is coming from just five birds. If you learned just those five birds, you would know half of what you were hearing in your backyard.
I tested this premise a few years ago by taking an hour hike on a trail I had never visited. In due course, I heard 35 species and a total of 105 individual birds. When I totaled them up, I realized that 10 percent of the songs were coming from just one bird species. There were eleven different black-throated green warblers singing along the trail. I heard nine different winter wrens, eight American redstarts, eight white-throated sparrows and seven magnolia warblers. Bingo: just five species were making 41 percent of the noise. The top ten species accounted for two-thirds of everything I was hearing.
The typical neighborhood is even easier. Song sparrows are everywhere. You will find common yellowthroats wherever there are low, thick bushes. Even urban areas in Maine have black-capped chickadees and goldfinches. If there is a park or golf course nearby, expect to hear yellow warblers. Mature oaks and maples will harbor red-eyed vireos, while the blue-headed vireos are more likely to sing from immature stands of mixed deciduous and conifer woods.
The problem is us. We don’t break up the task of learning bird songs into manageable bites. At first, we tag along with a knowledgeable birder on an Audubon walk and panic at the notion of learning all those bird songs identified by the leader. Later, we may tempt fate and buy one of those CDs that contains all the bird songs east of the Mississippi. Compounding the error, we slip the CD into the player and listen to all the songs in order, deluding ourselves into thinking we might actually remember one of them. If that technique worked, I could be fluent in multiple languages. Instead, I’m barely fluent in one.
Try this instead: learn just one song today. Find a bird singing in your neighborhood and go watch it sing. It’s a lot easier to remember a song when you can visually connect the bird to it. Try to remember its song long enough to go find another bird of the same species. As time goes on, just add a few more birds to your memory without overloading. The funny thing is: the more you learn, the faster you learn.
With every new bird you add to the list of songs you know, you remove one from the list you don’t know. When you hear an unfamiliar song, the list of possibilities is reduced and it becomes easier to figure out.
A word of warning: Don’t expect the little twerps to make it easy for you. Some songs are easier to learn than others. Some bird species sound similar to other bird species. And some returning migrants are out-of-practice or are just embarrassingly bad singers. But start with one bird today and soon you can go from being overwhelmed to merely whelmed.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.