Hope for Musically Challenged Birders (Like Me)

Belted Kingfisher_FCNC-CO_LAH_1319f
Belted Kingfisher

It’s early morning, too early, I groan, but the air is full of sound. Even before the sun crosses the horizon, I can hear the birds calling, singing, squawking, and chirping, all right outside my open bedroom window. Granted, that’s what I get for putting the feeders up close to the house, where they can easily be seen. But still—all that noise, just because dawn is coming?

As I lay in bed, I can distinguish the cooing of the pigeons from the two similar calls of the Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared-Doves. I know that most of the noise is coming from the flock of House Finches that seem to spend all their time in our yard. And that harsh screeching means the magpies have returned.

Later, as I harvest some veggies from my little garden, I hear a whirring of wings and a short, abrupt twit, and I know the hummingbirds have discovered that my bee balm is in bloom. And as I lie in bed that night, with the lights out and the covers pulled up, I fall asleep to the hooting of our neighborhood Great Horned Owl couple, calling back and forth to each other.

Identifying birds by the sounds they make seems so easy when I’m home. The songs and calls are familiar, as are the birds that make them. But then I go birding somewhere else—out on the shortgrass prairies to the east, hiking through the mountain forests to the west, or perhaps just a stroll through a neighborhood park to the local duck pond—and all the sounds overwhelm my hearing.

I admit it—I’m terrible at birding by ear!

It’s somewhat mysterious, my inability to remember bird sounds. I hear very well, even those extra high-pitched cheeps that so many people miss. I just can’t seem to put those sounds into my long-term memory.

Yellow Warbler_Alamosa-CO_LAH_1103
Yellow Warbler

I do remember many of the mnemonics I’ve been taught. know that Black-headed Grosbeaks sound somewhat like robins, but then I can’t remember what the robins sound like. (I could probably label their “Cheerio” calls, but they say so much besides that!) Yellow Warblers say, “Sweet, sweet, sweet”—but so do a number of other warblers, at least to my ears.

I can recognize a few of the easiest sounds, such as that of Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows and Common Ravens, and the cascading melody of a Canyon Wren. Spotted Towhees tell you to “Drink, drink, drink teeeeeeea” and Black-capped Chickadees call their name: “Chick-a-dee, dee, dee” or say “pee wee.” Mountain Chickadees sound similar, but as if they’re recovering from laryngitis.

Western Wood-Pewee_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_2435f
Western Wood-Pewee

But every spring I have to relearn our local Vireos, the Warbling Vireo’s “If I sees you; I will seize you; and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt” and the Plumbeous Vireo repeatedly asking “Can you see me? Not yet!” Now that we’ve moved out of the Ponderosa forest we lived in for 22 years, my memory of the various nuthatch calls is rapidly fading. And if asked to ID the call of a Say’s Phoebe, all I can recall is that it sounds sad.

Now you’ll understand why I was so excited to discover that there is an entire course on the Audubon website designed for sound-challenged people like me. “Birding by Ear” is an eight-part series of video lessons taught by esteemed birders such as Kenn Kaufman, Bird and Moon creator Rosemary Mosco, and Colorado birder Nathan Pieplow, author of the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds (both the eastern and western editions). There are a number of tricks you can use to increase your retention, such as visualizing the sounds, familiarizing yourself with the local bird sounds, and learning to read spectrograms. It also helps to know what the varied sounds mean—is it an alarm, a territorial declaration, or a youngster asking for another meal?

It will be a while before I’m ready for episode 7: Learn Different Regional Accents (although I know people who are this skilled)! That’s fine with me. I hope that listening and re-listening to these talks will at least move me up a few skill levels, perhaps from “pathetic” to “optimistic,” if not yet “confident”!

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