Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bird Song Primer Part I

Transcript of today's For the Birds. You can hear it as an mp3 file on my webpage here or on the podcast page here. All bird songs courtesy of Lang Elliott
American Robin

This time of year, I get inundated with questions from people trying to puzzle through an intriguing bird song. Learning bird songs takes time and patience, and there are no shortcuts to mastering them. I learned bird songs through a combination of trying my darnedest to track down every single sound I heard and listening over and over to recordings. Richard Walton’s Birding by Ear explains what features to listen to in each song, and John Feith’s Bird Song Ear Training Guide provides mnemonics to help memorize songs. The recordings I use most often, including the ones I use to produce For the Birds, are by Lang Elliott, one of the most prolific and skilled of all bird recordists. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website also includes the sounds of virtually every species of North American bird. But to master recognizing most of the natural sounds in your area, nothing is a substitute for taking the time and effort to track down vocalizing birds.

That said, it’s fun and useful to recognize the most prominent singers, and may cut down on the phone calls and emails I have to deal with. A few birds sing long musical sentences. The one everyone needs to learn as a baseline of comparison is the American Robin. I think of that as the Julie Andrews of the bird world because of the rich, sweet quality. Robin tunes include long sentences made up of words of three or so syllables. Pay close attention to your backyard robins, and you’ll soon be able to recognize several other singers by comparison.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also sing long sentences. Their tone is richer and more full-bodied, seeming more operatic to me, like Beverly Sills to the robin’s Julie Andrews. And the long phrases sung by Rose-breasted Grosbeaks aren’t as easily broken into three-syllable words, but more run together.

Scarlet Tanager

Once you recognize the robin, the Scarlet Tanager is really easy--it has a raspy quality, like a robin with a very sore throat.

Gray Catbird

Three birds sing long sentences of strung-together imitations of the sounds of other species and often mix in mechanical sounds such as cell phones and chain saws. The Gray Catbird’s imitations all run into each other. Often a catbird will include a diagnostic mew, but even when one doesn’t, the string of unrepeated imitations and the tonal quality become easy to recognize with practice.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrashers have a similar tonal quality to catbirds, but repeat most of their imitations once. One Brown Thrasher made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not for its repertoire of 2,400 distinctly different song phrases.

Northern Mockingbird

The most famous American bird for its mimicry is the Northern Mockingbird. The mockingbird’s song has the same tonal quality as a thrasher or catbird, but the bird repeats most phrases two or more times, so we hear most of its sounds in triplets or more.
These are a few of the basic songs that anyone who wants to be knowledgeable about birds should learn. I’ll talk about a few more in coming days.