I think I may have violated the fire code last week. The meeting room at Blue Hill Public Library was rated for a maximum of 53 people. I’m pretty sure there were more people attending my presentation on Birding By Ear, but I deliberately didn’t count them. Ignorance is bliss.
Anyway, the packed house for the Downeast Chapter of Maine Audubon reminds me that many, many people wish they knew what birds are making all that noise around the yard. Learning bird songs is a challenge for most folks, simply because there are so many birds singing so many songs. Hundreds of them. Fortunately, it’s not nearly the challenge it appears to be.
The truth is, there are only a handful of birds making most of the noise, wherever you are right now. Maybe 10. Tell me where you live, and I’ll even tell you which ten. Birds are picky about their habitats. If your home is surrounded by oaks and maples, you have a different set of birds than somebody who is surrounded by spruces and balsams. But regardless, you have ten birds making most of the noise. If you learn them, you’ll suddenly know a high percentage of what you’re hearing.
Try this. As of today, most migrants are back and singing. Pick out the one bird near your house that is making the most noise. Find it and watch it sing. Listen up and down the block to find another bird making the same sound. For today, learn just that one bird.
Once you’ve mastered the noisiest, go after the next. Learn just one bird at a time. Warblers give people trouble, because there are so many of them. They stay up in the trees, and they don’t come to feeders. During a full day of birding, I expect to encounter at least 16 species.
Fortunately, most of their songs are clear and memorable. It’s a good place to start practicing.
Or try this. Rather than find a bird and learn the song, find a song and learn the bird. There are web sites where you can look up specific birds and hear their songs. A Google search usually takes you first to www.allaboutbirds.com, a web site run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Pick a really common local bird, and look it up online. Listen to the song. Then take a walk and listen for that song. I’ll give you two warblers to learn: black-throated green warbler and northern parula. Black-throated green warblers can be heard singing “zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee” wherever there are woods. Expect to hear the northern parula sing its zipper-like “zeeeee-up” in the same places.
After a while, learning the songs will become easier. The hard part will be remembering them. There are tricks to make that simpler.
The first memory trick is to break the big list of Maine birds into small groups. Warbler songs are usually short and sweet. Finch songs tend to be long and sweet. Flycatchers are harsh. Some birds warble a fast series of up and down notes. Some, like American robins, vocalize a more sing-song pattern of up and down notes. Thrushes are flute-like. There are trills and buzzes, and so on. If you can remember which birds fall into which groups, it’s a lot easier to retrieve specific songs from memory, because you’re recalling the identification from a much smaller subset of possibilities.
The second memory trick is to associate words with songs, a process called “mnemonics.” There are many famous phrases used to help remember common bird songs. The yellow warbler says “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.” Chestnut-sided warblers say “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet ‘cha.” Eastern towhees demand: “Drink your tea.” Some birds even say their names, like the chickadee, phoebe, and whip-poor-will. Most guidebooks include suggested mnemonics in their descriptions of each bird.
Make mistakes. Nobody ever learned how to play the piano without hitting the wrong note. Making mistakes is actually one of the best ways to speed up your learning process, because you will start to remember what fooled you, and why. The more mistakes you make, the faster your birding-by-ear skills improve. Some birds will still fool you regularly. But when you find yourself suspecting that you’re being fooled, you will begin to suspect those particular culprits.
The joke’s on them.
To recap: just learn one bird at a time. Pick out a noisy bird and learn it. Or select a likely song, and find the bird singing it.
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 email@example.com.