Spring birds make the world come alive with music. Some may think of it as a bunch of confusing sounds. Indeed, it is a birdy party out there and it’s a great time to learn who is in the neighbourhood.
Identifying birds can provide hours of entertainment as well as opening a window to lifelong learning. Many bird guides illustrate what a bird looks like, but did you know that birds are also commonly identified by their sounds?
Many birds migrate north in the spring, and some stay here to nest. Once the leaves are out, birds are more difficult to see, and sound is very often the best way to detect a bird’s presence. Some birds look very similar, but their songs or calls will be different. As well as relying on colour and size and flight pattern and habitat, you can also learn bird identification by listening!
Birds make different sounds for different reasons. Songs usually have more melody. The reason bird song is so prevalent in the spring is because it’s a male’s way of protecting territory or attracting a mate. Once nesting starts, it becomes much quieter. Calls, on the other hand, are usually a simpler sound that both sexes make when they are alarmed or want to keep in touch with each other.
If you have ever tried to learn a new language, you will know that you start off with very basic words before attempting more complicated words.
The same methods can be used for learning to identify birds by sound (except there is no 2-way conversation, of course!). Mastering the sounds of one or two species is the key to learning more; as you build up your mental library, you’ll have more practice and more sounds to compare to.
It can be overwhelming, as there can be many species on the airwaves at the same time. There is always a point in the year when most birders suffer from ‘critical bird-brain overload’!
While some birds have a consistent sound wherever you find them, others appear to have dialects. For example, the Song Sparrow and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, both common birds sound different here in the Kootenays than at my previous home in northern BC.
Some bird calls are more easily remembered by using mnemonics. The Great Horned Owl hoots “Who’s awake? Me too!” while the Barred Owl says “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”? A popular favourite, the Olive-sided Flycatcher, calls out “Quick, 3 beer!”
Spectrograms are a visual way to interpret a bird sound. They’re graphs that show you the frequency, or pitch, of a sound (rising, falling, steady), its quality (buzzy, clear, trilled), and how these change throughout (creating sections). Once you learn this, it may be a valuable tool to helping you remember what you heard, as well as identify the sound.
If you are interested in starting to learn about birds, contact your local naturalist club. Most publish a check list, and these narrow down which birds are found in your area and at which times of year.
There are good birding apps that you can add to your phone or tablet, which include visuals as well as audio. That way you can identify a bird when you see it or hear it. (Note: the Merlin app is free)! If you are looking for some more technological help, a new app called Song Sleuth allows you to record the bird and helps you to identify it.
There are also some very good websites that provide excellent learning tools.
If you are a music lover, may this bird opera bring you joy as you head out to see who’s in your neighbourhood today!
For information about CBAL’s literacy programs in your community go to www.cbal.org
Community Literacy Coordinator Kimberley
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy