If you type “What bird song sounds like” into your Google search bar, autofill will suggest “What bird song sounds like cheeseburger?” Obviously no bird is actually saying that word, but just as obviously, the search algorithm indicates that quite a few people are under the impression that some bird is singing exactly that. So what on earth are they hearing?
In truth, the issue is not what they hear, but rather what they remember. Birding can be a memory-intensive activity, so mnemonic devices that aid in remembering specific details are valuable to birders, especially when it comes to songs. Sometimes the bird sings so clearly that it is even named for its call, making the recall and identification instantaneous. If you already know that the word phoebe refers to a particular bird, then hearing a call that sounds like the word phoebe will immediately remind you of the bird’s identity. But what if you were ignorant of the Eastern Phoebe's name? Would phoebe be exactly the word you’d hear—or remember? Maybe not, but you'd still probably use another real word rather than seebrr, which also sounds like the bird's call.
This, of course, is because it is far, far easier for people to remember a word they know—a collection of sounds that has actual meaning to them—than a set of nonsense syllables. Don’t believe me? Try to memorize a sentence you don’t understand in a language you don’t speak and pray there are no penalties for getting it wrong. (You really don’t want to wind up like Bruce Campbell, desperately trying to remember how to chant “Klaatu barada nikto!” in Army of Darkness.) It’s also much easier for a human being to say words in a human language than to precisely duplicate the high-frequency pitches and rhythms of a bird’s song.
Thus, American birders have generally created their mnemonic devices using English words that mimic the rhythm or quality of a song’s phrasing: bob white, kill deer, old Sam Peabody. A long high note followed by two shorter and lower ones becomes cheeseburger. In the west, those three notes are typically written up as fee bee bee—not nearly as memorable as cheeseburger—and indicate a Mountain Chickadee. In most of the country, however, the repeated three-note phrase is rendered by authorities (including the National Audubon Society and National Geographic field guides, as well as Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion) as tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle; still, no matter what words you use, it’s the familiar sound of the Carolina Wren.
David Sibley, however, is having none of this. Eschewing English words as a tool for recreating the wren’s syllables, his eponymous field guide insists that the wren is singing pidaro pidaro pidaro. And since birds do not actually speak English, who is to say he’s wrong? But right or wrong, I don’t really see the point of pidaro. For one thing, it’s hard enough to render non-English sounds into English sounds. It’s a whole other challenge to render non-English sounds into English letters, as anyone who has had to choose between using czar or tsar will recognize. And those are at least words produced by human mouths; how the heck is our spelling supposed to cope with sounds that came out of a syrinx?
So yeah, maybe pidaro really is closer to the mark. Unfortunately, while Sibley’s phonetic rendering might arguably have more fidelity to the wren’s phrasing, it ignores the entire purpose of a mnemonic device: to offer a familiar heading under which to file something less familiar. Ultimately, it has to help you recognize the song when you hear it. In that light, at least, you’ll get a lot more use out of a cheeseburger than you will from a pidaro, and even Sibley must grudgingly admit it. Though he identifies the song of the Eastern Towhee as the phonetic jink denk te-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, he immediately hedges his bet by inserting a parenthetical “drink your tea” afterwards. Pragmatism wins.
Unfortunately, not every field guide is completely pragmatic. Nate Swick at 10,000 Birds points out that the common phonetic mnemonics for Empidonax flycatchers can be extremely misleading because they simply don’t sound like the birds. Despite what the Audubon, Peterson, and National Geographic field guides might insist, the Willow Flycatcher doesn’t really say “fitz-bew.” It can’t, as it lacks both the teeth and lips necessary to make the sound of an f. So what, Swick asks, is the point in using the phrase as an aid to memory?
It’s a fair point. (Sibley, to give him his due, renders the call as RITZbew.) But I’m pleased to report that I know a better mnemonic anyway.
I heard my first Willow Flycatcher in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley, and I knew at once that it wasn’t speaking English. Like anyone whose kids were obsessed with Pokemon, I immediately recognized that it was speaking Japanese: