Excuse me while I repeat myself. Every year about this time, I encourage readers to learn a few new bird songs. From now through June, all of our breeding birds are making noise, attracting mates and defending territories. It’s primetime for birding-by-ear. It’s also prime time for discouragement. Learning bird songs is daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
So I’ll repeat some advice, at the risk of sounding like a broken record.
Note to self: younger readers have no idea what a broken record is. They’ve never experienced the dismay of scratching a favorite song on a 45 rpm disk.
First, let’s take the pressure off. There are up to 300 bird species making noise in Maine right now. Let’s be frank. You’re not going to learn them all, so don’t even worry about it. Just learn the ones making most of the noise near you.
Wherever you are right now, roughly 10 species are making the majority of sounds. Maybe fewer.
If you’re at home, up-to-camp, walking a favorite trail – whatever – there’s only a small set of birds clamoring for attention. If you learn just those, and no others, suddenly you will recognize much of what you’re hearing. That varies by location, obviously. Different habitats have different birds. But whatever habitat you’re in, there’s just a relatively small number of vocal birds.
Let’s test this theory. A week ago, I led a Maine Audubon walk on the entrance road to Leonard’s Mills in Bradley. Over 90 minutes, we encountered 21 species. Four of them were seen, but not heard. The other 17 made noise, including ovenbird (7), American goldfinch (4), black-and-white warbler (3), chestnut-sided warbler (3), common yellowthroat (3), black-throated green warbler (3), northern parula (2), blue-headed vireo (2), black-capped chickadee (2), swamp sparrow (2), pine warbler (2), northern cardinal (2), northern flicker (1), tufted titmouse (1), yellow-rumped warbler (1), broad-winged hawk (1), and hermit thrush (1).
Altogether, we heard 41 individual birds.
But over half the noise came from just six species, led by the numerous and loquacious ovenbirds that morning. And the songs of the other five are so distinct from other birds that someone on that walk could have easily learned them all in just a half-mile of walking.
Even that is too much pressure. Learn just one song. Step into your yard, and listen for the one bird that is making the most noise. Find it, watch it, learn it. Then stop.
Trying to learn every bird at once is the surest way to forget every bird at once. Data overload.
Now let’s remove even more pressure. Feel free to make mistakes. In fact, make lots of them. Even Mozart hit a few clinkers while learning the piano. (Of course, he was three years old at the time.) Remember, the birds are doing their best to mess with you. Some songs are similar. Some birds have more than one song. Birds make a bunch of different noises besides songs. And, frankly, some individual birds are just lousy singers.
Some birds are trouble. I’m talking about you, American redstart. And you, yellow-rumped warbler. Both birds have multiple song variations, each lamer than the last. Some birds are always hard, so why torture yourself? Learn the easy ones first, and save the hard ones for later. It takes a long time to learn 100 percent of what you’re hearing, but not long at all to learn 50 percent.
Some birds sing confusingly similar songs. That’s actually to your advantage. When songs fall into categories, they may be tricky because they are similar, but also easier because only a handful of species fall into that category, making it easier to sort the few. Categories include trills, warbles, sing-songs, flutes, whistles, hoots, screeches, etc. Sometimes, once you’ve mastered one bird in a category, you can start to identify the rest just by remembering the subtle differences.
Some birds are so plentiful, you’ll hear them a lot. Maine has about 14 species of nesting sparrows, but you’ll hear song sparrows more often than all the rest of them combined. There are over two dozen breeding warblers, but most of the noise is coming from just a handful of them. There are nine flycatchers in Maine, but it’s the eastern phoebe nesting on your porch that is most conspicuous.
So that’s it. Just learn a few this spring, and you’re on your way. And for younger readers, tune in again next week, when I explain what a telephone book is.