Rising hours before sunrise to get a “good seat” is a common practice for birdwatchers.
Insomnia has nothing to do with it. Ask anyone who’s ever experienced the drama of a pre-dawn birdsong concert, and they’ll tell you:
Don’t be late for the best show in town.
Let’s face it. The world is a better place because of bird song, and so is birding. Though, when it comes to birding, it’s a good deal easier if you know which bird is making which sound.
Basically, there are two types of bird vocalizations — calls and songs. Birds sing to make public their territorial interests or to attract a mate. Birds call to one another when agitated, navigating, curious, feeding, squabbling or courting.
Not all birds sing. Geese, ducks, herons, doves, hawks, gulls, shorebirds, woodpeckers, cuckoos and grouse, though they make plenty of sounds, are credited with “calling” — or in the case of fowl-like species — drumming or booming. We reserve the term “song” for, well, “songbirds” — like thrushes, orioles, warblers, finches — and even musically-challenged birds like crows and jays.
Got all that?
With more than 430 birds to confound you, Wisconsin holds loads of challenges for song or call identification. If you begin by learning the songs of the most common species, you will build a foundation for learning others. Master the American robin, house finch and song sparrow first; they’re common, noisy, and can serve as reference points for less common bird sounds.
The easiest way to remember a song is to transcribe what you’re hearing into human words or syllables. The robin, for example, sings an upbeat “cheeriup, cheerio, cheeriup.” The American goldfinch calls out “potato chip!” in flight. An eastern towhee’s song can be described as “drink your teeeeeaa!” A white-throated sparrow whistles a melancholy “poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” The ovenbird, a ground-nesting warbler, belts out a ringing “tea-CHER, tea-CHER, tea-CHER, tea-CHER!” from the forest understory, and the pint-sized ruby-crowned kinglet hits you with a vociferous “Dee-dee-dee-dee, chatter chatter chatter chatter, double-dee, double-dee, double-dee, double-dee!”
These mnemonic devices can become quite involved — even comical — but they do work, maybe because they’re comical. The song of the warbling vireo does sound a lot like “If I could see one, I would seize it and squeeze it till it SQUIRTS!” It’s easy to remember the black-throated green warbler by “see, see, see Sue-ZEE!” And it greatly simplifies the complex song of the house finch by remembering this phrase: “Which is the year of the rich Wichita itchy ear?”
My mnemonic for the brown creeper is “see sweety, he’s so seedy!” I use the handy mnemonic “Meet the Greek, reheat to eat, feed it to Peter,” to recognize the summer tanager. And the chestnut-sided warbler? Why, that’s “sweet sweet sweaty sweatshirt!”
Of course, some birds make it a whole lot easier on us by simply repeating their names. The eastern phoebe, killdeer, black-capped chickadee and whip-poor-will are perfect examples, but there’s also the northern bobwhite, the eastern wood-pewee, and the blue jay.
With enough practice you’ll soon recognize that the crow caws, the mourning dove mourns and the chipping sparrow chips. The northern cardinal “whistles for its dog,” and the tufted titmouse whistles for someone named “Peter, Peter, Peter.” The common loon is famous for its spirited laughter. A ruffed grouse provides a lesson in physics; imagine the effect of gravity upon a bouncing ball. That’s the sound the courting male grouse produces by rapidly beating its wings against its body.
From its hiding spot in the cat-tails an American bittern pumps out a resonant “oonck-a-tsoonk!” The bald eagle calls “picky, picky, pick-up!” The Baltimore oriole sings “tortilla, tortilla, two, two.”
A European starling sounds like the industrial age gone haywire, and absolutely nothing sounds like a yellow-headed blackbird, by many ear-witness accounts, the most musically-challenged of all North American birds. It’s labored attempt at “song” sounds like it’s trying to force its own beating heart out through its open mouth. Ouch!
Recordings of bird sounds abound, and can be invaluable learning tools. Madison’s John Feith has produced two excellent resources for Wisconsin birds: “Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody?” (CD) and “Birds, Birds, Birds! An Indoor Birdwatching Field Trip“ (DVD). You can order from John directly by visiting www.caculo.com.
The easiest way to accumulate songs is to download them yourself — straight to your phone if you like. Simply go to xeno-canto.com, search for the bird you have in mind, and click on the download icon next to the recording. A majority of the world’s bird sounds are archived on the site. Collect all 10,000.
If you encounter a song in the field, you can compare it to the recording, or you can play recorded songs while you’re busy about the house. Repetition leads to familiarity, and after a time you may find that you’re recognizing more and more of the birds you hear live outdoors.
Some people claim that there’s no better resource than a more experienced ear. Birders are eager to share tips on identifying birds, and they’re readily bribed with hot beverages and attentive company. It leads them to believe that there’s nothing strange about sitting outside in the dark on dewy spring mornings. Not if other people are doing it. And no one you know can see you...
Betchkal is an Eau Claire freelance writer.