I suggest reading today’s paper outdoors, if you can stand the noise. The trickle of returning migrants becomes a torrent right about now, and the neighborhood comes alive with song. Listen carefully, and you might hear some of the very phrases that appear below.
Today’s column is about mnemonics. These are memory devices that make it easier to recall things. They are particularly useful in remembering bird songs. The power of these phrases is so strong that they often are the only popularly acceptable way to remember a song. For instance, pick up any field guide and thumb through to ovenbird. No matter who wrote the guide nor when it was written, the author will describe the song with the phrase “teacher, teacher, teacher.” Writing any other phrase would be sacrilege.
I dare you to find a field guide that doesn’t describe the common yellowthroat song as “witchety, witchety, witchety, witch.” The barred owl mnemonic is famous: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Every guide book describes the song of the eastern towhee as “drink your tea.” The song of the white-throated sparrow is “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” — except north of the border, where it is described as “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” A flying American goldfinch can be heard to call “potato chip” as it passes overhead.
Several mnemonics have popular variations. The song of the yellow warbler usually is described as “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” or sometimes “sweet, sweet, little more sweet.” Black-throated blue warblers announce a rising “I’m so lazy” or “beer, beer, beer, BEEE.” But you get the idea.
Of course, the birds aren’t really saying these phrases. The mnemonic merely tries to capture the rhythm or cadence of the phrase. A chestnut-sided warbler sings “pleased, pleased, pleased to MEET’cha,” but I can’t say I hear those actual words. When in doubt, I go to the guide book and say the phrase to myself to see if the cadence matches up to what I’m hearing. Good enough.
Some are quick and easy. The tufted titmouse sings a piercing two-note “Peter, Peter, Peter.” Just as loudly, the Carolina wren chirps a three-note “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.”
Some phrases are so strong that they become the name of the bird. Consider the chickadee, whip-poor-will, killdeer, bob-white, pewee and phoebe. Some mnemonics are descriptive. The “wee-see-wee-see-wee-see” of a black-and-white warbler is described very accurately as the sound of a squeaky wheel. An American bittern sounds like the old fashioned hand pump on a water well.
This is when my innate goofiness starts to come out. I’ve begun to collect weird mnemonics just for fun, even when I don’t need the memory devices. I already know what these birds sound like, but I laugh every time an olive-sided flycatcher cries “quick, three beers.” The Canada warbler sings a strange burst of notes that sounds like “chip-chuppity-squiditchity.” Then I heard someone refer to the mnemonic as “Canada Dry is so bubbly.” OK. That cadence works.
The northern waterthrush has a loud song that I know by heart. But two years ago, somebody told me a mnemonic for it: “Pete, Pete, Pete, lend me your shoe.” I wandered off to find a waterthrush just to see if the phrase fit. After several birds, I decided the song sounded nothing like the mnemonic. But now I can’t get it out of my head. Whenever I hear a northern waterthrush, my brain says the phrase. That is the awesome power of mnemonics.
So now I am gleefully adding to my list of crazy mnemonics. The song sparrow intones “maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, kettle, kettle.” The indigo bunting sings a variable tune that consists of repeated notes in a couplet, sounding like “Fire! Fire! Where? Where? Here! Here! See it? See it?” The red-eyed vireo chants short, robin-like phrases in triplets that often are described as “Here I am. Where Are You? Look at me, way up here.” The white-eyed vireo sings “spit and see if I care. Spit!”
And crazier, the white-crowned sparrow migrates through Maine and seldom sings here. But when it does, it sounds like “poor Will peed his pants.” As you wander around the wetland at Essex Woods in Bangor, you’ll hear many warbling vireos singing to the caterpillar: “If I sees you, I will seize you and I’ll squeeze you ’till you squirt.” Go ahead, try getting that phrase out of your head now.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.