If there is ever a time of year to know how to identify bird songs it is at the height of breeding season. So our local Nature Center sponsored a class on Birding By Ear in San Diego County. I decided to attend the class and see what birding by ear is all about.
I dragged myself out of bed very early after getting to bed at 1:30 a.m. Whew! Being very tired is not the way to begin the day, especially when you are going to sit in a darkened room watching slides and listening to the songs and calls of over 135 birds. I had to struggle some to stay alert, but I managed to get the gist of it. But the bottom line is the skill in identifying birds comes with a boat load of practice and then some more practice.
But you need to know how to put that "practice" to work. Here is an overview.
Repetition (that's the practice I mentioned . . . the need to listen to the bird song repeatedly until it begins to remain in your memory.)
Then there's What To Listen For
- Pitch ( is the bird song low, high, somewhere in-between, ascending, descending, or both)
- Timbre or tone quality (clear, harsh, buzzy, nasal)
- Rhythm (single note, accelerating, repetitive, rambling, unique rhythm)
- Describe in your own words
- Make a musical notation (I guess this would be for music majors . . . that isn't me!)
- Pneumonic (i.e. a Yellow Warbler's pneumonic is "sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet")
- Compare to similar sounding birds
- Mimicry talents of some species (Mockingbirds/Thrashers, Starlings, Lesser Goldfinches, Steller's Jay)
- Distance/ambient noise
- Listening to the songs and calls of birds in the field is a must-do. And you have to do a lot of it.
We received a CD of recorded bird calls at the class. The CD was created by Frank T. Awbrey, Professor Emeritus, San Diego State University. Sadly Prof. Awbrey passed away in 1998. He was actively pursuing research in bioacoustics (studying the sounds made by animals) until shortly before his death. It is a privilege to receive this tribute in honor of some of his work and I know it will help me on my quest to identify birds by their songs and calls.
It's great to have Prof. Awbrey's CD and it will help me get started. But there are also a number of other recordings and tools available to help learn bird songs. Some that our instructor suggested are the Birding By Ear CD's, among many other choices. As far as tools go, the Identiflyer is available to help identify birds with their songs while in the field. Also, along that line is a new tools offered by BirdPod consisting of programs that can be loaded into an IPod.
Looks like my "I-want" list will continue to grow. As I continue on my quest to identify birds I'm discovering I like all the gadgets and technology. They are cool and really help. My interest in birds over the past 21 years has directed me down an interesting path -- at the very least it has been one filled with self-growth. Well, I guess getting a little wiser with age has helped, too. Yep, that could be. And if that's it, then getting older really isn't so bad.