There is a right way and a wrong way to learn bird songs. I know, because I tried them all.
The wrong way is to listen to a CD of bird songs, trying to memorize them. After the fourth song, I’ve forgotten the first. The easiest way is to wait for mid-May to roll around, and then go watch them sing. According to my year-at-a-glance calendar, that would be right about now.
If you’re interested in knowing which birds are singing which songs, here’s the secret for how to make it easy: Learn the easy ones. In fact, to prove the point, let’s tackle warblers – those troublesome, tiny birds that torment you with their songs from the treetops. Maine has two dozen breeding warblers. Several are rare, so don’t worry about them. A few others have difficult songs, so ignore them. We’re just doing the easy ones. Eight.
You’ll need a tool, something with bird songs on it. If you have a CD, or an app on your smartphone, use that. If not, find some bird songs on the Internet. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent web site at allaboutbirds.org.
Your first assignment is black-throated green warbler. They’re everywhere, and the song is distinctive: a fast, musical “zee-zee-zee-zoo-ZEE.” The “zoo” is lower in pitch; the last “ZEE” is higher. Find the song on your device, and get familiar with the sound. Now go find the bird. They are in every patch of woods in Maine. Can’t miss ‘em.
While you’re at it, try the black-throated blue warbler. The rising “zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEEE” is equally distinctive and easy. These birds are also found throughout Maine, though they are particularly drawn to large stands of birch and beech, perhaps with a mix of firs.
You should be able to find a northern parula. Goodness knows, they’ve been singing over my roof for the last three weeks. The song is akin to a zipper rising: “zeeeeee-UP.” Sometimes, it’s “zee-zee-zee-zee-up,” but the two versions are otherwise similar.
Here’s a bird you may not see easily, but you sure will hear it. The ovenbird is a ground-dwelling warbler that generally stays in the woods. It has a loud penetrating song that is described as “Teacher Teacher TEACHER.” It’s hard to go near any forest this time of year and not hear one.
On the other hand, a black-and-white warbler may be flitting around in your backyard right now. It sounds like a squeaky wheel: “wee-see-wee-see-wee-see.” It’s the only warbler that can perch on a tree trunk, so look for the tiny zebra-striped bird that is walking up the side of the tree, or hanging under branches.
The yellow warbler likes lots of sunshine. You’ll find it in the shrubs and trees around large open habitats, such as parks, golf courses, and wet areas. Its short, rapid song sounds like “sweet-sweet-sweet-ain’t-I-sweet?”
Another bird that likes the edges of open areas, with trees that are not very tall, is the chestnut-sided warbler. Guidebooks declare that the song sounds like “pleased, pleased, pleased to MEETcha.” I suppose that works. Really, it’s the strong WEEyou at the end of the song that truly stands out.
Get used to hearing the common yellowthroat. They don’t call ‘em “common” for nothing. Unlike many warblers, this is not a bird of the treetops. He likes low bushes and even cattails. Yellowthroats sing a lot, and it sounds like “witchety-witchety-witchety-witch.”
There. Eight warblers. They’re all fairly common, and they sing distinctive songs that are easy to remember. I’ll wager that I can stand in the parking lot of Bangor City Forest and hear all eight without moving. I’ll probably even hear at least three other warblers that I am not mentioning now. And I am not mentioning them now because nothing inhibits the learning of bird songs like information overload. The trick is to focus on only a few birds, trying to pick their distinctive voices out of the crowd. Then, if possible, watch them sing. With a little practice, the songs will stick with you.
Naturally, this trick works on a variety of species. Learning is easier when you group particular song sets together, and bird families often share similar characteristics. Warbler songs tend to be short and sweet. Thrush songs have an ethereal flute-like quality. Finches mostly make long-winded warbling tunes. Flycatchers sound harsh. Sparrows are…umm…
Never mind sparrows. The little twerps are widely different from each other. Save them for another day.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.