Editor’s Note: There's a lot to look forward to in spring, including the welcomed hullabaloo of birdsong. The sheer volume of songs and calls can often feel overwhelming for birders, but these sounds offer both an opportunity and a challenge. Follow along with our birding-by-ear series to learn how to better ID birds through their vocalizations. To catch up, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8.
In part 4, Jason “The Birdnerd” St. Sauver, the community education director at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center and author of TEN TIPS: Birding by Ear Basics, proves that the more sounds you know, the easier it is to recognize new ones. So how do you train your mind to sift through the “white noise”? Here’s his advice.
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“Well, I have no idea what bird made that sound, but I am sure it wasn’t a robin.” This statement was uttered by a young man on one of my tours for blind and visually impaired students at the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center in Nebraska. We were taking a walk through the tallgrass to test out the auditory skills we’d practiced in a workshop earlier that month. The robin doubter’s answer was perfect. He was demonstrating one of the main ways to get better at birding by ear—a step I call “Learning Your Locals.” It helped him to winnow down the choices for his mystery species, which turned out to be a tricky Northern Bobwhite.
As an official Audubon “Birdnerd” and teacher who specializes in birding by ear, I love trying to pass on the knowledge to others. Over the years I’ve come up with a list of 10 go-to methods for both newbie and obsessive birders. The first is immersion, which means getting outside on an early May morning to just listen, practice, and listen some more. This is a skill in itself as it helps build your library of songs and calls, and helps you master local species.
I keep coming back to “Learning Your Locals” because the more bird sounds you can identify from the neighborhood, including robins, jays, cardinals, finches, and woodpeckers, the easier it will be for your ear (and brain) to recognize when you hear something different. Let’s break down an example. You’re sitting in your backyard or local park enjoying the dawn chorus. It’s a semi-urban area, so there are doves cooing, finches zip-zabbling, and starlings channeling car alarms and baby babble. This can easily get overwhelming on the ear. But if you’ve honed your skills and memorized the common languages, you will automatically start to filter out the “white noise” and home in on anything new or different. It’s not that you have to ignore the finches, starlings, and doves. Rather, your mind processes them, catalogues them, and then moves them to the background so that the auditory focus can shift to more peculiar noises like the nasally beeps of a Red-breasted Nuthatch or the multi-toned tunes of a Hermit Thrush.
To get into that headspace, however, you have to be the best kind of listener. For a little practice session, head outdoors, close your eyes (yes, this really helps), and start organizing sounds. Listen for the tempo and pitch of a birdsong you know—perhaps the fast, repetitive, and clear cheer-up, cheerio of the American Robin. Then, tune out the British wannabes and eavesdrop on something similar but soft such as the peppy song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The bird’s melody is shy and tentative, as if it’s secretly trying to imitate the robin. Or try the tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea of the Carolina Wren. It’s fast, loud, and repetitive like the robin, but has shorter phrases and a more distinctive rhythm.
Ultimately, your goal is to build on what you already know and draw comparisons to help you identify new sounds. So the next time you go birding, concentrate on calls and songs performed at a higher or lower pitch than the ones you can identify. See what comes of the experiment—but remember, it will only work if you've already learned the tempo, quality, and length (along with pitch and repetition patterns) of your local feathered friends. When you hear the Black-capped Chickadee asking for a cheeseburger, check it off your mental list and move on. There could be a more mysterious species singing about food out there.