Seeing is believing, and sometimes hearing can lead to seeing. Recently during a field trip with the Savannah Ogeechee Audubon I realized how important it is to not only know your birds by sight, but by sound as well. During a walk in the woods the spring foliage hides many of the birds we hope to find, however with a keen ear we can listen for them. This alertness combined with a bit of patience can help us identify a bird we might have walked by in the past.
Most amateur birders and backyard hobbyists should be able to tell the difference between a Northern cardinal and a Northern mockingbird, but how many of us could hear the difference between a Kentucky warbler and a Carolina wren? With the elusiveness of Warblers coupled with the fact that so many of them look alike, sometimes listening to their song is our only hope at a proper identification. Even more difficult still, some birds will only be heard and may never be seen. This is often the case with the Whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow. Since they are nocturnal and blend in so well with their surroundings, listening to their song could be as close as we ever get.
There are a number of tools available to help us become better listeners. The Stokes "Field Guide to Bird Songs" CDs have been a popular choice for years. These are available online and at many nature and wildlife specialty stores. A more popular choice being employed by many serious birders in the field today is an iPod pre-loaded with both images and songs from the Stokes CDs. This is a great resource and perfect for field use. The website birdjam.com can facilitate this for you by offering everything you need to get started including an iPod. There are also a number of other websites that feature images, species information, and songs. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, www.birds.cornell.edu, is an excellent place to get started.
Of course one of the best ways to learn bird songs is to listen in the field. Many times after identifying a bird in the field I will sit quietly and listen to their song. While enjoying watching the bird, I am also engraining their song into my head so that next time I will recognize it. Will this technique work every time? Most likely not. Chances are I will need to repeat this process a few times before I really begin to be able to recall the sound. This is where the CDs come in handy. I can call up the sound anytime I want. I am not at the mercy of the bird.
Besides identification there are other things we can learn while listening to the birds. Birds are singing to communicate - either with each other, with other species, or perhaps even with other animals. Their song can be used to attract a mate, call to their young, or even to alarm others of a nearby predator. These all may be distinctly different calls and it is important that we know the difference.
When birding with an experienced birder I am always amazed at how in tune they are with the birding environment and just how out of tune I am. However with some practice and a little homework I hope to be able to tune my ear as well and continue to develop my ability to listen to the birds.
Heifert is a Richmond Hill birder.