Birding by Ear

I have spent these last couple of weeks on my daily work commute listening to the calls of migrating birds. New Jersey is a major migratory flyway, so many of these birds stop to rest and feed before completing their incredible journeys. Wherever the birds stop to rest, you will find someone looking at them, especially during the most exciting month of the year: May. Like, NOW.
The point of birding, of course, is to see it, but there could be any number of obstructions preventing that, including distance, physical obstacles (fully leafed-out trees) property boundaries, or if a species is secretive, you can identify it by its song. Nonbirders roll their eyes at this, but I will bet you can identify some birds by ear yourself: the raucous call of a Crow, the tweedle-tweedle of a Blue Jay, the cheery-ay, cheery—ee of a Robin. Add to that the dee-dee-dee of a Chickadee, the honking of Canada geese overhead, and there you go: You can identify almost half a dozen birds by sound alone!
Some birdsongs are easier than others because their songs sound like actual words or phrases. Nmnemonics are priceless in helping me remember.

“Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” Chestnut-sided Warbler.
“Fire! Fire! Where! Where! Here! Here!” Indigo Bunting.
One of my favorites is the Warbling Vireo, a plain looking bird with a complicated song: “When I see you I will seize you and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!” This is a great imitation trick to do at parties. You will amaze your friends, if they don’t also think you a little odd.
“Maids, maids, maids, put on your tea kettle kettle kettle:” Song Sparrow.
“Chick-burr!” Call note of the Scarlet Tanager.
Some will tell you their names:
“Killdeer, killdeer, killdeer!” Strangely, the bird that sings this is a….Killdeer.
Fee-bee! Fee-bee! The Phoebe, one of the first of the Flycatcher family to return in spring.
I drive with the windows open, especially going past wooded areas and tick the birds off by song alone. I know when the Ovenbird has arrived and is skulking through the forest understory: “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” When I hear “Trees, trees, murmuring trees,” that tells me the first wave of Black-throated Green Warblers have returned, soon to be followed by the Black-throated BLUE Warblers: “Meer, Meer, beer, MEEEEEE!”
Another favorite is the song of the Olive-sided Flycatcher: “Quick! Three beers!”
Which is a mighty good idea after a good day of birding….

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4 Responses to Birding by Ear

  1. I think it’s amazing that you and other birders can recognize which bird is in hiding just from their song. We all can identify the most common sounds like a crow or geese but to be able to identify the many you can is truly a feat to master. Have a happy May!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Very informative post, Di – thanks! It’s amazing how many different sounds just one small bird can make, and I often despair of being able to identify even the more common ones! That web site is a treasure, though, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it often. : )


  3. Loved this post! I wish I were better at this. The latest field guide that my hubby bought me came with a birdsong DVD, so I don’t really have an excuse. I just haven’t spent enough time devoted to memorizing.

    It is helpful for identifying woodpeckers. I sometimes can’t see them when they are up in the highest branches, but I know who is up there by the songs.

    That is a great website, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it often. Thanks!

  4. Bevson says:

    Ah, birdsong, It is something I have to re-learn every year. Unlike you, my audio memory rots.

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