Birdsongs 101: A Class that Bears Repeating

By , April 18, 2010

One of the most reassuring results of a scientific study I’ve ever heard indicates that songbirds must relearn their distinctive songs each year. This comforts me because, except for one or two particular favorites, I have to remind myself at the beginning of each season which song belongs to which bird.

Obligingly, songbirds return to our area a few varieties at a time. Almost always first, the varied thrush, often called “the telephone bird” for its monosyllabic, cellphone-ring call, is unmistakable. After that, things grow complicated, particularly because of all the birds that seem to use a questioning “zeet” as a call or song, including the rufous hummingbird. Sorting them out takes time, and inevitably leads to a level of uncertainty that lingers throughout the season.

To identify who’s singing what, we rely on catching them in the act—seeing who’s singing, and identifying them through the handful of bird books we own. Then comes verifying the song. Each manual has its “closest approximation” to what the bird is singing, spelled out, often with similar-sounding words. Most of them vary to some degree, and none of them, on paper, quite capture the essence. For example, the ruby crowned kinglet’s “see see see, you you you, look at me look at me look at me.” Say what? Their song is like that, I suppose, but it seems necessary to get inside the mind of the book’s author to be sure.

We also use Leonard J. Peyton’s CD set, Bird Songs of Alaska (paid link) (ask your local bookstore, they may need to special order). The best method is to make a guess as to which bird we see and hear, start the disc at that cut, and confirm the song. (That’s what Michelle and I do. Aly likes to play the discs all the way through like music, I suspect partly because it drives our cats crazy looking through the cabin for birds.)

But, like many skills that must be continually practiced to be retained, in the long gap between brief songbird seasons, it’s hard to hang onto the knowledge. But now we know that we’re not alone in our need to brush up on the songs—the birds are doing it too!

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