01 June 2009

Bird Songs, Working Thoughts 1

Complex bird songs don't stick in my head from year to year. I have been birding for 30 years and recognize many sounds of my local species but the complex songs of warblers, vireos, and robin-like ones, for example, have me shredding my auricles.

I've been look at sonograms (spectrographs) from the macaulaylibrary.org in an effort to find a way to remember them. Browsing through the library I finally realize there are many dialects and even individually unique songs for one species. I feel better about myself - it isn't necessarily me being dense - the song I'm hearing for that species IS different than ones on recordings and may be an individual bird!

Recommendations for learning bird songs include:
  • Do your learning in the field
Follow the bird singing and identify it; associating the song to the bird is more likely to stick in your head then.

That would be great with all the time in the world and the ability to 'crane' your neck for hours until the little blighter in the top of a 60-foot spruce tree held still long enough in good light to show its field marks!

Fellow birder Rick Howie wrote: "After making such an effort, it was counter-productive to forget the song until the next time for fear that you would have to spend so much time tracking the beasty again."

This seems to work best for common species you see easily and frequently and are easy to identify. I guess that is how all the buzzes of the Pine Siskin got burned in my brain.

  • Describe the song to yourself and identify it every time you hear it
What words do I use to describe the song? Study sites and guide books use words like "buzz" and "trill" - what's the difference between a slow buzz and a trill? And what's the difference between a 'bounding' warble and a 'flat' warble, as I read on one site?

That's great if you know what species you're hearing in the first place (and you can hear, in the first place) - Catch 22.

  • Trust a fellow birder to tell you what it is - ah, ummm, well, need I say more?
  • Compare the song to a recording which you either
  1. take with you on a CD, tape, mp3 player, or iPod with "Bird Jam" software or
  2. have made written or mental notes to compare with your recordings back home
Have you noticed yet that air temperature, wind, human activity, distance from bird, etc. affect what you hear and which tones are carried?

This is why, I think, the opening tones of the Western Meadowlark are so piercing and loud - they carry quite far and can be heard in different atmospheric and sound-environmenent conditions. It is like they are saying "Here I am! I'm going to sing now! Listen up!"

The recordings are usually much better (more audible frequencies) than what you hear in the field. You can't always hear all the elements under field conditions! The buzzy quality of a weak buzzy tone might get drowned out by other sounds or temperature differences and you perceive more of a pure tone than the buzz on the recording.

Lower air temperatures = denser air = more energy required to move the air / create a sound wave = differences in distance sound carries and the frequencies carried / die-off of lower or higher frequency tones (I'm not sure which).

Also, as mentioned previously, different individuals may sing different songs, and different areas may have different dialects.

WhatBird.com says "Male Lazuli Buntings two years of age and older sing only one song, composed of a series of different syllables, and unique to that individual" OMG!

If you use a sound device in the field, your batteries could die. Then you'd have to rely on some other method - taking notes - or give up.

And, if you tried to remember / used notes - you've forgotten by the time you get back home to your CD player, computer, whatever or can't remember what your notes or musical notations mean.

  • Use a mnemonic such as 'sam peabody'
Who the 'h' is Sam Peabody and do the tones go up or down? Or "sweet, sweet, sweet, a little more sweet" or "chee-erp". I can't remember the mnemonic I chose as a memory jogger!

Who can interpret those descriptions in the field guides without some recording to reference?

Kenn Kaufman in "Advanced Birding" wrote about certainty of identification using all possible clues (re: Empidonax flycatchers) "If you reach the stage at which you feel you can name every Empid you see in the field, you are probably deluding yourself. . . I have studied these birds . . . and examined thousands of museum specimens . . . and individuals - and I believe I can confidently name about 80 percent of the Empids I see"

So, even a real expert puts his identification skills as a percentage of birds seen, not identifying every one. I can do that!

Following posts will list some of the words I am defining for myself to describe songs in 'lay' terms.

Happy avian eaves-dropping!

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