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Bird Song Central
BIRDING by EAR -- SPRING TUNE-UP

Brought to you by Dick Walton and The Virtual Birder

You will need RealPlayer 3 or above
to listen to the song clips in this tune-up.

For the free verion,
look for the "RealPlayer Basic" link.

If you are like me, your birdsong identification skills often need a few repairs after the long winter. Synapses dissolve, things come unwired - who knows what goes on up there, but a tune-up is definitely in order. Others of you may be venturing into the world of birdsong for the first time. You're sick and tired of that birding buddy who identifies every peep in the bush before you've even raised your binoculars. This is the year you get your revenge.

Whatever the motivation, this virtual field trip is designed to get you up and running in the birdsong identification department. It provides an overview of learning and recalling birdsong as well as some examples to put your learning into (or back into) practice. But remember, time in the field will ultimately determine the level of skill you will achieve.

To use bird vocalizations effectively as a means of identification (and that's what this is all about) you need some basic methods of representing the songs and calls. One familiar means is phonetics. This method employs sound units to mimic the vocalizations themselves. The words "chickadee" and "bobwhite" remind us of the sound the bird actually makes. Although many phonetic representations can be found in field guides, you will improve your birdsong ID skills by making up your own phonetics.

Here are some familiar examples and a few for you to "customize."

Eastern Towhee "drink your teaaaaaaa"
Eastern Wood-Pewee "peeawee"
Red-winged Blackbird "conqureeeeee"
Eastern Meadowlark "spring of the yea-ar"

Different birders hear the same song or call differently - don't get stuck on a phonetic that makes no sense to your ears. Make up your own - it will work better for you!!! Now here's a chance to customize a few birdsong phonetics. Even if you know one of the traditional representations make up a new one and write it down. The more active you are about learning birdsongs the quicker your learning is likely to progress. Be creative - often the most bizarre representation is the one you will remember. Try these:

Black-bellied Plover
Common Yellowthroat
American Robin

Another good way to represent birdsong is with written descriptions. Again, there are many examples in field guides. Here too, certain descriptions will work for you to help you recall the song and the songster - others will fall flat. Don't settle for a description that's not right for your ears - make your own.

Scarlet Tanager a robin with a soar throat
Fish Crow a nasal sounding crow; also the "virgin crow" - it always says no!
Black-and-white Warbler a squeaky wheelbarrow wheel

A student in a Birding by Ear workshop suggested that the Bobolink "sounded like R2D2 gone haywire." What do you think?

Now make up your own descriptions for these birdsongs.

Field Sparrow
Hermit Thrush
Veery
Eastern Kingbird
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A third method for learning and recalling birdsong involves diagrams or drawings. Depending on your learning style this may or may not work for you. Try making a drawing of the following vocalizations.

Field Sparrow
Belted Kingfisher
Veery
Black-and-white Warber

Now that you've had an opportunity to try all three methods of representing birdsong you should think a bit about your own personal learning style. To most effectively learn birdsong you will probably want to combine the methods that work best for you. Listen to these final examples and create phonetics, descriptions, and/or drawings to represent each song.

Wood Thrush
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Marsh Wren
Prairie Warbler

Congratulations - you have successfully completed your crash course in birdsong identification. Now you can amaze your friends and embarass your children. Seriously, birdsong learning is one of the great joys of naturalizing. Take your time, be active (keep a birdsong notebook), and above all enjoy. You won't learn all the songs in one season (and you'll forget some you do learn over the winter) but be persistant. Work with your tapes ("Birding by Ear", I hope!) and above all take your learning into the field.

Here's hoping you have a great Spring!

- Dick Walton



Dick with a Monarch Butterfly Dick Walton is a teacher, writer, and naturalist with an interest in birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. He is co-author, with Bob Lawson, of the Peterson Field Guides®: Birding by Ear series. Dick has given workshops for the American Birding Association, the Institute for Field Ornithology, the Association of Field Ornithologists, as well as numerous state Audubon societies. He has authored a variety of books and articles on birding and recently has produced video guides to butterflies and dragonflies.

Dick's web site (http://www.concord.org/~dick) has more details.

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Last Updated: Sunday, April 30, 2000 6:41pm EST