Basic Bird Identification
Practically every person on earth notices birds living around them and, sooner or later, many of them want to learn how to identify them. While challenging at first, there are no tricks to bird identification, but rather a familiarity of bird classification and a logical approach to observing birds’ characteristics and then finding them in a field guide.
If you are new to bird identification, one of the first steps is to become familiar with their classification system. Birds are divided into large groups called orders which are easily learned because the differences and similarities of sizes, shapes, proportions, postures and behaviors among birds of different orders are very apparent. Even at a young age, most of us can tell the differences among the orders of ducks, shorebirds, owls, hawks, herons, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and sparrows.
Each order consists of groups called families. Our observational and discriminating skills become more challenged because the differences between birds of different families are more subtle. For example, while birds of prey are all in one order, the Falconiformes, the osprey, eagles and kites are all in different families .
The songbird families are often the most frustrating to learn mostly because to beginning birders, songbirds all look alike. We have learned to recognize common songbirds like Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and American Robins, but we don’t always know their close relatives in their families. Looking through your field guide, you will see that the families of songbirds differ in colors, bill sizes and shapes, postures, songs and behaviors much like the orders of birds. However, the similarities and differences in families are more subtle, making us look at finer details. The warbler family, for example, contains sleek small, mostly yellow birds with thin, pointed bills, while the sparrows are browner, stockier bodied and have thicker cone-shaped bills. The members of the Mimidae family (Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds and thrashers) are long in body, bill and tail. Chickadees are small and rounded, mostly black and white with tiny bills. Thrushes are larger, plump, big headed and large eyed birds. The blackbirds are medium sized, usually black perhaps with some orange, red or yellow markings, with fairly large, long straight bills. Flycatchers are grayish with small, broad flat bills and sit in an upright posture. To be more specific about the differences in families, members of the thrush family all have a notch in their upper bill and smooth scales on their feet. Other songbird families don’t have this. While this may sound picky, it is these genetic variations that tell us how closely birds are related or not related to each other.
Finally, each family is composed of individual birds that have a generic name and species name. Here is where our powers of observation and discrimination are invaluable. At the individual or species level, we must notice the finest details including patterns of colors and markings (field marks), very specific behaviors and individual songs. For example, using a familiar bird, the American Robin, we know that it is a songbird and in the thrush family because of its size, head and body proportions, beak and big eyes. If you had it in your hand, you would also notice the notched bill and smooth scales. We recognize it as a robin, not another closely related thrush, because of its rufous belly, partial white eye ring, dark charcoal colored head and gray back. We might watch it searching for insects and worms on the ground and hear it sing its ‘cheerup cheerily cheerily’ diagnostic song. All these details lead us to the identification of an American Robin.
As a novice birder, you should spend some time with a good field guide before going out into the field. While you can find bird photos on the internet, nothing is better than a field guide since it organizes your search images using characteristics that categorize birds into their orders, families, genera and species.
Birds are consistently arranged in most field guides in a predictable arrangement of orders and families. This phylogenetic sequence is not random but instead based on the evolution of birds beginning with the earliest evolved order and ending in the most recently evolved order. This arrangement is quite similar to learning the alphabet and then using a telephone book. Not only do you know which letter follows next, but where each letter is located in the alphabet and, therefore, how to quickly find a person’s name in the telephone book.
Remember, your field guide is your friend. Knowing the sequence of orders and families in a field guide can ease the frustration of beginning at page one and frantically turning pages until you stumble upon the right picture of your bird.
However, there are a few field guides that escape the traditional phylogenetic sequence and rearrange the sequence to put birds from different orders together. This can be extremely useful and logical since many birds from different orders look so much alike and behave similarly in the same habitat. In these field guides, for example, you will find the three orders of ducks, coots and grebes together rather than arranged by evolution. Finding them in these field guides is a lot easier since all of these birds are swimming together right in front of you in the same pond.
Whichever field guide you have chosen look up some of the birds that you already recognize. Study their closest relatives (usually on the same or adjacent pages) and decide what they have in common. Become familiar with at least one bird from each order or family. If you know a Great Blue Heron, you will recognize the other herons and egrets. If you can identify one shorebird, then you should be able to recognize other birds that are shorebirds. This practice is especially handy with songbirds. You already know an American Robin which helps in identifying other thrushes since they all have the same body and beak shape and a big eyed appearance. Observing that your backyard Carolina Wren often sits with its tail cocked up lets you recognize the other wrens that sit the same way. Comparing your known birds’ characteristics with unknown birds at least narrows your search in your field guide to a few pages. And when you venture farther from home and are confronted with new birds, they will remind you of familiar birds at home so that familiarity and logic will be your guide.
It seems like just yesterday (OK, 1995) that a friend and I commented on how we so wished that our favorite bird ID field guides and most useful bird song recordings could be formatted to be downloaded to a handheld device. Before we knew it, apps for nearly everything were abundantly created and nearly every birder downloaded their favorite bird ID apps to their cell phones. The list keeps growing with new field guides, recordings, locations maps, eBird listing. You name it.
In the next few weeks, I will add a review of all the available digital resources and give you hints on which are the most informative, user-friendly and up to date.
Finding the bird.
Nothing can be more discouraging to a novice birder than being out in the field with an experienced professional who rattles off the names of 50 birds in 50 seconds. Frustrated, many people give up, feeling overwhelmed by this magical performance. But if you have prepared yourself and done your homework, it is time to go out into the field and test your skills. The first step is simply finding a bird.
It is fairly easy to see ducks swimming in ponds and lakes, egrets and herons wading in marshy areas, shorebirds finding food on the beach or mudflats, or hawks soaring in a thermal. Such habitats are actually excellent places to begin birdwatching. It gives you a chance to get the feel of spotting the bird and then seeing it in your binoculars. Small birds like songbirds are much harder to find especially when hopping about in a leafy tree canopy or skulking in the understory of shrubby thickets.
Of utmost importance when locating birds is to listen. Whether soft chip notes or long, melodious songs, birds usually give away their presence by noise. Leaf-turning and scratching on the ground can indicate an Eastern Towhee or Brown Thrasher; drumming and pecking announce a woodpecker, excited chipping indicates a foraging flock of birds.
Beyond listening, locating the bird with your eyes is an obvious goal. By scanning the tree canopy and bushes with your naked eye, you might be able to see a bird sitting quietly or darting from here to there searching for food. This step often involves staring catatonically into the leaves and canopy. Try to remain unfocused while staring so that movements at your peripheral vision can be noticed. In many cases, birds are not actually seen but rather the leaves they are in will move. Small numbers of leaves moving indicate a small bird, perhaps a warbler, vireo or chickadee. Whole branches moving could mean a larger bird such as a crow or Blue Jay or even a squirrel (which should be ignored). If the entire tree is swaying, it may be time to seek shelter.
Finding the bird with your binoculars.
Now that you have seen leaf movement or the bird itself, you must progress to seeing it through your binoculars. This is no easy task for a beginner birder. Peering through binoculars at a football game is one thing. Finding a bird four inches long, 100 feet away and hidden behind leaves in the crown of a tree is another. There are many occasions that by the time you have gotten your binoculars on the bird, it has practically built a nest, raised its young and migrated south.
Once you have located the bird or seen its leaf movement with your naked eye, think about where the bird is in the tree in relation to something else. For example, if it is in the crown of the tree, ask yourself is the bird at twelve o’clock, on the right at three o’clock, or on the lower left at seven o’clock? Is it at the tip of a branch or in the middle? Try to notice something stationary next to the bird that you can put your binoculars on first and then move to the bird itself. For example, you might think, “the bird is at three o’clock in that scarlet oak tree, five feet in from the tip of the skinny, crooked branch, three inches from the gray clump of lichens”. Of course, this also may require you to be a botanist. As long as you can identify a tree from and shrub from a vine, you’ll be fine.
The next step is crucial. No matter what happens, if someone steps on your foot or a spider crawls on your arm, keep your eyes on the bird. The most common mistake people make after finally finding the bird with their naked eye is looking down at their binoculars. Don’t look down at them; they are not going away. The bird, however, will go away. Keep your eyes on the bird while bringing your binoculars up in one smooth motion. Watch experienced birders in the field. They don’t walk with their hands in their pockets. They walk with their binoculars hanging close to their upper chest and their finger on the focus knob like an old western gunslinger; ready to shoot.
If you don’t see the bird through your binoculars right away, hang in there. While apparently staring up at nothing may seem a little boring, have patience. The bird will eventually appear in view (unless it flew out of the back of the tree). If you still don’t see it, sneak a peek over the top of your binoculars (without putting them down) to scan more of the tree with your naked eye. If you are convinced the bird is really there, scan with your binoculars in the general area you think the bird moved into. A lot of small birds can be seen by very slowly scanning with binoculars, but try the most obvious ‘naked eye’ search first.
Which brings up a basic rule. Never use your field guide while watching a bird in the field. Use it later after the bird has flown and you have a complete picture of all its characteristics and won’t be confused by look-alikes on the same page. Many bird watchers will carry a pencil and pad to either draw the bird or take down a few notes about it. Once you have recorded everything you could possibly see and hear about the bird (including behaviors and habitat) refer to your field guide. Otherwise, simply seeing a little yellow bird and then trying to match it to one of the 40 species of little yellow warblers can be discouraging, convincing you that it can’t be done and that golf is a better hobby.
There are no tricks to finding birds. You may miss a lot of them at first, but even the best birders miss a few once in awhile. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Keep practicing your skills.
Identifying birds in the field.
Now that you can spot birds and find them in your binoculars, it’s time to decide what they are. Unless you can identify birds by just their songs and calls, you must get at least a glimpse of the bird. Pull together your impressions of what the bird appears to be by using what you learned about the characteristics of their orders and families. Very often, your first hunch is correct.
Flight behavior is a good clue to the identity of birds since many of them are initially seen flying. The more you watch them, the more you will notice their distinguishing flight patterns. A great number of birds including Common Grackles, American Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins and Blue Jays have a simple, straight flight with no dipping or turning. Watch their wing beats. The blackbirds have a fairly steady wing beat, but American Robins have an ever-so-slight hesitant wing beat. Blue Jays like to end a flight by raising their wings up to their body and back down in a shortened stroke.
A bouncing or undulating flight is more typical of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches. Similar sized warblers don’t bounce very much and just before they land on a branch they dart either to the right or left at the last second. Thrushes may do the same, but often have to settle their wings and tail immediately after landing as if readjusting them. Watch an American Robin (a member of the thrush family) land on a twig or branch. He settles himself. All the thrushes do that. Wow, you have just narrowed it down to only four pages in your field guide.
Woodpeckers prefer to flap a few times and then hold their wings closed, alternating this dipping pattern as they fly along. Rumor has it that the timing of the dip is important if they are to land feet first on a tree trunk.
Hawks soar as do vultures. But hawks fly flat and both Turkey and Black Vultures have more of a dihedral or “V” shape to their wing profile. If you watch closely, the Black Vulture flies a little flatter than the Turkey.
The necks of herons, egrets and bitterns are retracted as they fly, but ibises, cranes, geese and ducks have outstretched necks.
Spending time watching even the most common birds flying will imprint these flight patterns in your mind so that you can identify birds at great distances. Your friends will be quite impressed that with just a quick glimpse you can identify a bird flying three miles away.
The color of a bird is one of the first characteristics we notice. Most familiar birds are easy to recognize because of their color; red for Northern Cardinals, blue for Blue Jays and bluebirds, black for crows, white for egrets, and so on. And some birds have splashes of color that make them easier to identify; the red patch of a Red-winged Blackbird or the white rump of a Northern Flicker or green head of a Mallard.
Many birds are similar in color, however. Special markings, called field marks, may be the only way to discern between two look-alike species. Field marks include crown stripes, eye lines, eye bars, eye rings, cheek patches, lores above the nostrils, throat streaks, breast spots, tail spots, wing bars, crissum color and nape colors. By studying a good field guide’s topographic drawing of a bird (usually at the beginning of the book) you can learn what these marks are called and which ones are the most important.
Caution: the color of a bird can be difficult to ascertain when it is flying. The sun and sky as a background do little for color saturation. Watch the bird until it flies in front of white clouds, a tree canopy or even a building. For birds in trees, hang onto it until it steps in front of a leaf or branch for a better look at its colors.
The proportions of a bird’s body and head define its shape and silhouette . Does the bird have a neck long enough to an egret or a crane? Is the head and body robust and upright like a hawk or an owl? Does the bird have a chunky body and small head like a dove? Is it small and compact enough to be a songbird. Crests are also important. Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Cedar Waxwings, Blue Jays, Pileated Woodpeckers, Hooded Mergansers, kingfishers, and some flycatchers all have crests. Herons and egrets have fancy feathers on top of their heads. Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls have “ear” tufts.
Shape also includes the tails of birds. A bird’s tail shape can be especially useful when it is flying. Viewing a flock of black birds, you are able to distinguish three species by the proportion of their tail length to body size. Those with tails much shorter than their bodies are European Starlings; those with tails as long as their bodies are Red-winged, Brewer’s or Rusty Blackbirds; and those with very long tails are Common Grackles. Long thin pointed tails are seen on Mourning Doves. Very short-tailed songbirds are nuthatches. Barn Swallows have forked tails and are distinguished from swifts that have hardly any tail. The ultimate examples of forked tails are many terns, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Swallow-tailed Kites. Among the birds of prey, the short fan-shaped tails of buteo hawks such as Broad-winged and Red-tailed help tell them from accipiters and falcons that have longer thinner tails.
Noticed the wing length and shape of the wing tips. Are the wings long and narrow with pointed tips as in the gulls and terns. Are the wings short and wide as in most songbirds? Are the wings held in a dihedral “V” shape like a vulture or are they flatter as in soaring hawk?
Whenever you study the size and shape of a bird, you will need to include the bill. Nearly everyone can recognize a duck by its flat bill. Anyone who has been bitten by a parakeet or parrot can identify hooked bills, also found in birds of prey. A long thin straight bill will often make a bird’s head look long and thin like warblers and vireos. Heavier looking down curved bills are found on thrashers, mockingbirds, catbirds, creepers and wrens. Curved bills are also found in cuckoos and many shorebirds such as godwits, curlews, and whimbrels. A cone shaped bill shortens the face, making the bird appear more round-headed like sparrows and grosbeaks. And, of course, hummingbirds have very long thin bills.
Compare your bird to one of the three standard well-known birds and their sizes: small like a House Sparrow, medium like an American Robin or large like an American Crow. And then there are the really big birds like hawks and herons and pelicans, but those are easy. Use a little caution here since the size of a bird can be deceptive especially if it is flying far away and against a blue sky. It is often easier to determine the size of a bird when it is with other birds or when seen next to an object of known size to use as a reference.
Watching the behavior of a bird takes considerably more time than just a glimpse of its shape and color. But observing bird behaviors can be tremendously rewarding. On dark days or in poor lighting when color, field marks, bill and tail shapes and sizes are not clearly seen, the way a bird walks, perches, climbs a tree or moves its tail can help identify it. American Robins hop on the ground while European Starlings and grackles strut. Phoebes flip their tails while perched. Spotted Sandpipers and Louisiana Waterthrushes pump their tails. Solitary Sandpipers teeter their entire body. Nuthatches crawl on tree trunks in all directions, but Brown Creepers only creep in a spiral fashion. A Hermit Thrush’s tail acts as if it has helium in it, rising up continually. A Hooded Merganser dives under water; a Mallard doesn’t. These are subtle behaviors that once noticed are extremely useful even without using your binoculars.
Narrow down your list of potential birds by keeping in mind what habitat you are standing in. Before venturing out, study the range maps in your field guide, ask other birders what they have seen there and review the checklists of the area.
If all this seems overwhelming, don’t despair. Given enough desire and time all of these clues become second nature. Each characteristic will be processed quickly by your brain and your fingers will glide smoothly through your field guide. Never again will you call someone for help and simply say that the bird was big and brown. Train your eyes to see colors, field marks, bill and tail shapes and characteristic behaviors and songs. Concentrate on both the overall impressions of birds as well as their details.
Now that you know something about bird classification, are able to recognize characteristics of birds and can find them in a field guide by using an organized and logical approach, you are ready for a bird identification challenge.
You see three birds that you do not know out in the field. How do you proceed?
The first step in narrowing down your selection is to decide what order the birds belong to by noticing their size, shape, color, habitat and behaviors.
What do you notice first?
1. body size or shape, leg and neck length
2. behavior–does it swim or soar, climb tree trunks, wade, perch or sing
3. habitat–is it on the beach, mudflats, marsh, pond, or tree canopy?
4. color—what is the overall color?
Challenge Bird One: A long legged bird with a long, slender neck is carefully walking along the edge of a pond. (You recognize this type of bird as a wader like a heron, egret or ibis).
Challenge Bird Two: A large dark bird with huge wings soars overhead. (Logic tells you that this is probably a bird of prey or vulture).
Challenge Bird Three. A small yellow bird, sitting on a limb, throws its head back and sings a beautiful melody. (Little and singing? Must be a songbird of some type).
OK, you know what order it belongs to. Ask yourself more specific questions.
1. Behavior–Is it in a flock or alone?
2. What is its bill shape and length?
3. What is its tail and wing length or shape?
4. What about its posture– if sitting–does it sit upright or horizontally? If it is flying—does it soar or flap?
Challenge Bird One: Looking closely at the white wader at the pond you see many of them and they all have long, decurved bills that probe into the mud. (Ibis are white and forage together with heads down and probing).
Challenge Bird Two: The bird soars gracefully with flat wings and few wing beats. It has a short, fan-shaped tail. (Can’t be a vulture, but should be a hawk).
Challenge Bird Three: The small, yellow songbird begins to flits it tiny wings nervously, gleaning insects from the surrounding leaves with its thin, pointed bill. (Warblers and vireos do this).
Now, you have your three birds down to their families. You begin to notice finer details and field marks in order to choose which species it is:
Challenge Bird One: Your wader has a pink face and bill making it a White ibis, Eudocimus albus.
Challenge Bird Two: As the hawk turns in a thermal, its tail catches the sun. It appears to be uniformly reddish-brown. Has to be a Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis).
Challenge Bird Three: This bright, yellow warbler turns to face you and exposes reddish-brown streaks on its chest. Lots of warblers to look at, but on a Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia, has those delicate brown streaks on its breast.
Congratulations. You have found and identified all three birds using a simple, organized method of observation, elimination and logic.
BECOMING A BETTER BIRDER
Here are some valuable field techniques that can make you a better birder.
1. Listen for birds at all times. This is similar to learning a foreign language; the more your ears hear the sounds, the easier it is to understand them. Listen even when driving which obviously requires at least one window down, preferably the driver’s window. This can be a bit uncomfortable for passengers in the back seat, but you will soon be able to ignore their whining and hear only birds chirping. While outside, listen even while you are talking to someone. Practice long pauses between words and sentences. This enables you to sample bird songs and monitor the bird population around you. This technique should be done with caution, however, if you have a short train of thought.
2 Look constantly for birds no matter where you are and what you are doing. Better birders rarely spend a waking moment when they are not aware of which birds are around. Veteran birders are often considered rude conversationalists as they are constantly scanning the sky, tree canopy, branches, and power lines for birds. They avoid eye contact with you in order to increase their valuable birding time.
3. Watch for signs of birds. Blue Jays and crows loudly scolding may alert you to a hidden hawk at the top of a tree. Mobbing titmice often lead you to a secretive owl. The chip notes of chickadees will alert you to other species foraging together.
4. Examine flocks of birds carefully. Never assume that a flock of birds contains all the same species. Hidden in the crowd could very well be something different or even rare. The difference between a birder and a better birder is that the latter is always ready and looking for the unexpected. If you don’t expect something unusual, you will never see anything unusual. On the other hand, remember the doctor’s saying, “when you hear hoof beats, don’t expect zebras” and consider the most common and most likely bird first.
5. Where to look. Start out by looking at the most obvious places for birds to be perching. Utility lines are frequently used by many birds including doves, shrikes, swallows, goldfinches and even hawks and kingfishers. The tops of dead snags are good for woodpeckers and birds of prey. Wire fences are favorite perches for many sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.
6. Bird often. Birding is one of those things where the reward is dependent upon your effort. You can learn to bird while sitting in your lounge chair and reading field guides or bird behavior books, but only by getting out frequently can you sharpen your skills. Visiting various habitats during different times of the year increases your chances of seeing more birds and truly knowing them.
7. Bird by yourself. You don’t always need to join an organized group. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going out by yourself. Seeing a new bird and finding it in your field guide allows for the personal satisfaction of actually being able to find and identify a bird. The positive reinforcement of finding the bird yourself far surpasses having someone always telling you what it is. Your self esteem will soar.
8. Help yourself. Learn field techniques such as making birds come to you. Approaching birds usually makes them withdraw deeper into the thickets. Pull them out to you by pishing or squeaking. Neither of these noises can be actually taught; they must be learned by trial and error, preferably when you are alone to avoid beginner’s embarrassment. Pishing is done by placing your tongue against your front teeth and hissing while opening and closing your lips frequently. You can vary pishing by adding more saliva to it or making your lips tight. Squeaking is sucking air through the backs of two fingers or your fist. It is thought that good kissers make good pishers and squeakers, but current research suggests that it may be the other way around.
Another technique to attract birds is producing an owl call. The call of an Eastern Screech-Owl, for instance, will alert other little birds who will make their presence known by mobbing you. Owl calling works very well even when pishing and squeaking don’t, but there are a few disadvantages to it. Done repeatedly in the same area, resident birds may habituate to a screech owl calling, making the technique less effective and the birds less wary. It may also discourage real screech owls from staying around. And finally, frequent owl calling may irritate other birders who are trying to listen to soft call notes and chips.
While in the field, many birders use recorded bird songs on tapes, CDs or iPods. There is a fine assortment of pre-recorded bird call and songs for nearly every country and birding hotspot in the world. Most effective in the spring and summer, recordings can pull birds down from the tops of trees, out of hidden places they favor or practically from the middle of nowhere. Playing songs works largely because a defensive bird on territory is eager to pick a fight with the intruding male, which in this case, is just a recording. But he doesn’t know that until he has revealed himself. An argument against using recordings is that disturbing the bird takes time and energy away from his more important chores.
All of these techniques, pishing, squeaking, owls and recorded songs have an influence on the behavior of the birds you are seeing or hearing. Better birders use these methods infrequently, if at all. So if you want to leave no feathers ruffled simple sit quietly and become part of the landscape. You’ll see plenty of birds.
9. Notice where the sun is. Looking into the sun or seeing a bird silhouetted against a blue sky makes seeing details difficult. Move. Get the bird in front of something (a cloud or a tree trunk and foliage) and try to approach it with the sun at your back.
10. Move slowly and patiently. Nothing makes a bird disappear or fly away better than fast movement. Patiently hold your ground and let the bird move towards you as it goes about foraging. Remember, if you can see the bird, it knows you are there; you have not snuck up on it. But it will often tolerate you if you don’t move. Avoid pointing at it especially if you are close. If you need to get someone else on the bird, learn the fine technique of describing where the bird is without pointing. Soft talking is far less disruptive than fast movement.
11. Optics. All these techniques are meaningless if you finally find a bird but cannot see it well due to poor binoculars. Years ago the only good optics were expensive optics, but now there are a number of very decent binoculars in the mid-priced, affordable range. Decide upon how much you want to invest and then talk to an experienced birder before purchasing anything. They will most often advise you to buy a pair of 8 X 42, lightweight, waterproof, roof prism binoculars. That is eight power (as if you are standing eight times closer to the object) and 42 mm (the diameter of the objective lens—the bigger this number the more light enters your binoculars). If you wear eyeglasses, find a binocular with high eye relief (18-22mm) that allows you to bring the eyepieces as close as possible to your glasses in order to see a larger view. For more information on binoculars or scopes, visit a local bird shop or online.
12. Keep a list of your birds. Write down or check off your birds at the end of each field trip. Better birders not only keep the list of species but also the weather conditions, habitat and date. If you bird the same location frequently, keep a spreadsheet or enter your list online at the Cornell website eBird. http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
13. Remember, birding is much more than the identification challenge and counting them. Real birding includes the thrill of finding and seeing birds, acquiring a keen knowledge of their distribution and appreciating their amazing life histories and behaviors. To limit yourself to just identification and checking off birds on a list is to deprive yourself of the true wonder of birds and to reduce your birding memories to mere names and numbers.
LEARNING BIRD SONGS
Frustrated by all those songs and chips emanating from an early morning avian orchestra? Or are you just trying to improve your birding skills by adding bird song identification to your already complicated life?
As a novice birder matures, it quickly becomes apparent that ninety percent of birding is half what you’re hearing. An experienced birder rarely relies solely on sight when either casually birding or seriously conducting surveys and counts. In fact, since some species frequently forage and skulk entirely hidden from view and other species look nearly identical to one another, song recognition is imperative if you wish to raise your birding skills to a higher level.
Why do birds sing?
Bird songs are often complex, musical melodies used primarily to establish and maintain
territories and pair bonds. A song indicates the type of bird, its sex, its age, its breeding condition and whether it is paired and mated. For example, a male American Robin sings, “I am a virile, sexy male American Robin; I have an established territory of six acres with a view; and I am looking for a mate to share same and raise a family which I can provide for.”
Bird calls, on the other hand, are shorter and simpler sounds used for many reasons; to hold a family group together in dense foliage or a flock during nocturnal migrations; to intimidate and drive away enemies or competitors; to convey information about food or predators; and to serve as an identification password to a mate or nestlings.
Since songs and calls are used for many purposes, birds often have a variety or
repertoire of vocalizations which, along with different dialects, makes learning bird songs
Train yourself to listen for each song, not the entire chorus. It’s like listening to a symphony played by your favorite orchestra. You want to pick out the oboe, then the flute, the viola, the cell, finding individual notes from each instrument. This is probably the most difficult part of hearing bird songs because some are quieter than others, farther away, higher pitched, shorter in duration or sung only once every ten minutes. Try to hear and identify the closest, loudest, most obvious songs first. Then ignore them and listen in between for farther away, softer songs.
Use gimmicks. Pay attention to the mnemonics or phonetics of as many songs and calls as possible. Putting words to a bird’s melodies can help identify a rhythm or pattern in the song. Oftentimes, the words are phonetic clues—the bird is saying its name, such as an Eastern Wood-Pewee’s ‘pee o wee.’ Other times, the words mimic the notes and melody of the song such as a Barred Owl’s ‘who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.’ The song or call may even imitate some other sound, such as comparing a Chipping Sparrow’s trill to a sewing machine. You can make up your own voice gimmicks or you can use the widely accepted ones that even the best birders in the world use. Keep this list handy or commit it to memory and you will be surprised how much these little birds have to say to you.
Learn the song’s components
Song characteristics include its pitch, rhythm, tempo, loudness, and quality. Begin by listening to the most common songs in your neighborhood. Listen for the pitch; is it very high almost out of your hearing ability or is it lower and easier to hear? Does the pitch within a note change making it sound upslurred or downslurred? Does the pitch change between two or more notes making parts of the melody ascend or descend?
Listen to the volume of the song. How loud or soft is it? Is it a bold burst of notes or merely a soft whisper? Does the loudness change within a note or within a phrase? Does the volume of the song remain constant or does it crescendo or diminish?
What is the rhythm or pattern of the song? Is it a single note or a series of repeated notes?
Is the song a complex melody composed of many variable notes with pattern or more random without a pattern? Are there pauses between notes and melodies?
Does the tempo of the song remain the same or change becoming faster or slower? Can you hear individual notes or are they given so fast that they sound like a trill or even faster, a buzz?
What is the quality or tone of the song? Are the notes or melody harsh, sweet, squeaky,
spitty, buzzy, or metallic? Do the notes and phrases blend together to give the song a
warbling quality? Or are the notes sharp and dry giving the song a scolding tone? Since
this characteristic is very subjective, using your own particular description of the quality is
With a good imagination and lots of practice, you can use these tips to create an ‘audio image’
for recognizing and identifying bird songs whether you are in your backyard, somewhere in
Georgia or anywhere in the world.
How do you go about learning these songs and chip notes?
Forget everything you have ever heard or wished about bird song identification being easy and quickly learned. Only very gifted people can quickly master birding by ear. Birders who point out and label a faint “zipp” from a brushy field half a mile away without even pausing in their conversation have been at this a long, long time. In fact, probably too long.
Learning bird songs takes patience, perseverance, and persistence, along with a good ear, a good tutor, and a good deal of practice. The best method is to bravely venture out by yourself, finding each singing bird and watching it. Somehow, seeing the bird singing helps to imprint that vision and audio image together.
Learn your common birds first so that you can compare them to unfamiliar songs of new birds. If you know an American Robin’s song, then you can compare it to the similar songs of Scarlet Tanagers, Summer Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
Go out with a patient teacher who never tires of endlessly telling you, “that’s a Carolina Wren; that’s a Carolina Wren, that’s a Carolina Wren; that’s a Carolina Wren.” And just when you think it’s safe, this same saintly person will devilishly throw out, “that’s a Carolina Wren’s aggressive chip note, but the one before that was its contact trill note” so on and so on as the bird goes through its repertoire of dozens of songs and calls.
Listen to tapes, CDs or iPods with pre-recorded bird songs. Most recorded samples include dialects and repertoires, subsongs, territorial and mating songs. They give you a wide variety of voices for each bird which, while overwhelming at first, better equips your ear for a true birding experience. Some of the recordings are tutorial, teaching you how to listen and what to listen for. Others simply play the birds’ songs in phylogenetic order.
Trying to learn songs from CDs and tapes can be difficult for many people. Use the recorded songs as a prefield trip primer or to review songs after going out into the field, not as a sole source of learning.
Remember that nothing, absolutely nothing, is better than watching a bird sing. It always seems like the more effort you put into finding a bird and watching those beautiful notes pour out of its little throat, the better you will learn that song.
Since many of us are visual learners, seeing the voice print of a song can increase your learning ability to remember songs. Visit the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to see their interactive sound analysis program, Raven, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/raven/RavenOverview.html that magically transforms the audio song into a visual sonogram. Each note, syllable and phrase can actually be seen repeatedly and slowly as often as you need.