Maine’s summer birds have returned, and they’re singing like crazy. Perhaps they’re driving you crazy. For a few experienced birders, it’s a chorus of familiar voices. For all others, it’s a cacophony of confusion.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are hundreds of different bird species making noise in Maine right now, but only a handful are making all the noise around your neighborhood. Maybe 10. Probably fewer.
Of those 10, how many are already familiar? I’m guessing you know a robin, blue jay, mourning dove and chickadee when you hear one. An eastern phoebe has been squawking around your house for over a month, probably perched on your deck. So, that leaves maybe three birds around your backyard making noise you don’t recognize.
You’re thinking, “Really, just three?”
Yes, and one of them is a song sparrow, so now it’s just two.
Naturally, if you have a house in the woods, the number goes up a bit. There’s probably a flycatcher or thrush nearby. Perhaps there are five different warblers that can be heard from your driveway. But guess what? It’s the same five every year – the five that seek the kind of habitat you’ve got.
There are two dozen warbler species in Maine, but only a few of them matter at your house.
Learn just a couple of songs, and suddenly you’re able to identify nearly every bird you hear at home.
That’s too easy. So let’s add a second location, someplace you visit regularly. It could be a park, a golf course or upta camp. The habitat will be different, so the birds will be different, but once again, it’ll just be 10 birds making most of the noise, and you’ll already know several. Learn just a couple of the prominent voices and, once again, you’ll be able to identify most of what you’re hearing.
Some songs are complicated. Ignore them. Learn the easy ones first. Most warbler songs are short and sweet, usually with an easy-to-remember pattern. Some are so common and distinctive that they can be learned immediately. For instance, you could learn to recognize northern parula, ovenbird, black-throated green warbler and common yellowthroat before lunch today.
Still too easy. So let’s go to a third location, someplace known for having a lot of singing birds. Let’s walk the trails of Bangor City Forest. Don’t look at any bird. Just listen, and divide up all songs you hear into two categories: birds you know, and birds you don’t know. When you realize you’re hearing some of the same songs you hear around home, congratulate yourself for knowing more bird songs than you thought you did.
Now pay attention to the songs you don’t know. As you walk the trails, some songs occur much more frequently than others. Pick one of those. You may now look at the bird. When you’ve figured out what it is, go find another one making the same noise. Then another. By the third repetition, you’ll own this song.
Leave. Don’t learn any more songs. Trying to learn too many songs at once is the No. 1 mistake that nearly all birders make. Return the next day, find your first bird again, and congratulate yourself for now knowing its song. Then go learn a second frequent singer. Remember, about 80 percent of the noise is coming from 20 percent of the birds. By learning those first, you’ll soon recognize most of what you’re hearing.
Eventually, you’ll be ready to take on a new challenge — a completely different habitat, like a saltmarsh, mudflat, hayfield or mountaintop. Most of the singing will be utterly unfamiliar, but the same rules apply. No more than 10 birds are making most of the noise.
Nothing destroys confidence like birding with an expert who is seemingly able to identify every sound in every habitat. There’s no mystery to it. The expert has simply acquired a memory of the songs typical for each habitat, and has probably taken a long time to do it. Each song was learned one at a time, starting with the common, easy-to-remember ones. Once the common songs are known, the uncommon ones grab attention, and they are soon added to the expert’s repertoire.
So, if bird songs are driving you crazy, here is your assignment: learn one. Just one. Do it this week. Find the bird around your house that is making the most noise, and figure out what it is. The rest will get easier.
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.