Everyone is for the birds
October 23, 2018 1:21 PM   Subscribe

A lot of people love birds, but even avid birders sometimes only know species by sight. Yet you are often more likely to hear a bird than see it, so anyone who is interested in birds or appreciating nature really should consider learning to bird by ear. It is a valuable skill that only enhances your time in the field. But for the blind or disabled, learning birds calls and songs offers even more. It gives a whole new dimension and accessibility to the natural world. Trevor Attenberg on "Birding Blind"
There's a lot to look forward to in spring, including the welcomed hullabaloo of birdsong. The sheer volume of songs and calls to learn can often feel overwhelming for birders, but these sounds offer both an opportunity and a challenge. Here's how to bird by ear.

- How to start identifying birds by their songs and calls
- A beginner's guide to common bird sounds and what they mean
- How to memorize bird songs using mental images
- Why knowing your local bird sounds is the key to unlocking new IDs
- Start using spectrograms to read bird songs and calls
- Are you listening to a bird mimic or the real deal?
- Learn your local birds' regional dialects
- Listen: birds aren't the only ones singing

Birdability: a movement to make birding accessible to birders in wheelchairs
It’s a sunny late afternoon on Lake Creek Trail in suburban Austin, where Rose lives, and she has been birding in her wheelchair since 7:30 this morning, as part of a self-imposed challenge to log as many birds as she could from dawn to dusk. The purpose: to raise awareness for Birdability, her new initiative to get mobility-impaired people out in the parks and enjoying nature, by way of birding—and in turn, to make birding more accessible. Birdability is one of the only efforts of its kind in the nation. Rose’s first step has been to compile a list of bird-heavy parks in the Austin metro area whose trails are wheelchair-friendly. There are currently 34, from Barkley Meadows to Windermere, a list that spans flat, manicured city parks and rugged, hilly nature preserves.

Jason Ward: the woods are my safe haven, but that's not true for everyone
As Paper Boi runs for his life, the trees erupt in a cacophony of bird sounds: Common Loon, Carolina Chickadee, Blue Jay, Chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Great Horned Owl. Through it all, I find myself on the edge of my seat, smiling as I identify these birds. I’m two seconds away from grabbing my binoculars when I notice that the main character doesn’t seem to be enjoying his experience. He even jumps as the sound of a bird taking flight near him. At that point, I realize we’re on two very different wavelengths when it comes to the woods.
Wild Indigo, Which Connects Kids With Nature, Launches in Detroit
On an overcast Thursday in June, 30 middle-schoolers surrounded a marble fountain at Detroit’s Cranbrook House and Gardens. The group listened attentively while they inspected the pieces of tree bark in their hands. Standing among them, Sanaa Green, Detroit Audubon's Wild Indigo fellow, told them of the many correlations between African American culture and nature, and how, in order to decipher history, they must understand environmental and ecological issues.
Benji Jones: For the LGBTQ Community, Birding Can Be a Relief—and a Source of Anxiety
If there’s one reason so many queer folks love nature, it’s that animals aren’t judge-y: A raccoon doesn’t care who you’re attracted to, a garter snake isn’t going to question your gender, and a bird of paradise isn't going to raise an eyebrow to how you’re dressed. In fact, many animals are super queer by human standards, whether they’re male flamingos that court other males, strutting and waving their heads from side to side, or parrotfish that can switch genders... But while queer people find comfort in nature—as many people do, regardless of how they identify—not all outdoor spaces offer the sanctuary they seek. Nature reserves and wildlife refuges tend to be located in remote areas that lack diversity. And although no organization tracks sexual orientation and gender-identity statistics among birders, the birding community lacks diversity, too.
Queer Nature:
Our program envisions and implements ecological literacy and wilderness self-reliance skills as vital and often overlooked parts of the healing and wholing of populations who have been marginalized and even represented as 'unnatural.' Our curriculums necessarily go beyond recreation in nature to deep and creative engagement with the natural world to build inter-species alliances and an enduring sense of belonging.
The feminist bird club: an inclusive bird watching club dedicated to providing a safe opportunity to connect with the natural world in urban environments while working to protect the rights of all womxn, non-binary folks, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Urban birding in New York City:
A taxonomy of birders, said Mr. Cooper, mirrors that of the birds. “Every year, you see the same species, but the experiences are different.” Mr. Cooper noted new stars like Jacob Drucker, once an elfin teenager whose skills are now off the chart; veterans, like Roger Pasquier, a long tenured “Jedi master” in Mr. Cooper’s estimation, and Lee, a homeless woman who joined their ranks some years ago. “She watched us watching the birds, and asked what we were doing and someone gave her a pair of binoculars,” Mr. Cooper said. “We’re all obsessed, but in our own ways.”
posted by ChuraChura (15 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I love love love when I get a bird's song and/or call fully into my brain, and can recall it effortlessly when I hear it. Good party trick, too.
posted by Stewriffic at 1:31 PM on October 23, 2018

So, so cool. I’m pretty terrible at birding by ear, but when it comes to certain kinds of birds. I’m terrible at birding by sight, too.
posted by rtha at 1:34 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

My cats thank you for this post and the delightful noises coming out of my speakers.
posted by puffyn at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

rtha, what are you talking about? You are an excellent birder. I've seen you in action! Remember that rock wren you found me up at hawk hill?

If you think you are terrible by ear and by sight, what then? Do you feel them up or something?
posted by Stewriffic at 1:39 PM on October 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm not much of a birder, but the trilling of redwing blackbirds in a nearby swamp played a major role in my choosing my current home. And the sound of nuthatches seems to always transport me to a cabin in northern Minnesota I haven't physically been in years.
posted by traveler_ at 2:12 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

This post made my day. Thank you.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:39 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

What a fantastic post, thank you!

It is indeed a thrill when you can recognize a specific bird that isn't, you know, a scrub jay or crow or house finch around here. I get excited in the winter when the bulbuls show up and I recognize their (admittedly distinctive) calls.
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2018

Thank you for this!!! This is just the inspiration I need to study more bird calls.
posted by narancia at 3:24 PM on October 23, 2018

Wonderful post. I have a friend who is very adept at identifying birds by ear which is great in the woods when they are hard to see. Currently I'm working on learning Morse code, similar since there is no time to count dots and dashes.
posted by exogenous at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2018

My Dad was somewhat of a birder and could recognize a large number of birds by site and by their sound. He had a gude to North American birds that had a frequency plot of every bird's call next to its picture. We once got a multi-record set (before the days of CDs) of nothing but bird calls from the library.

Hearing a mockingbird nearby, we got the bright idea of blasting the album out the window in the hope that the bird would copy some of the songs he heard.

He did! We imagined some other birder in the neighborhood hearing him belt out a number of very obscure and rare bird songs and freaking out.
posted by eye of newt at 3:52 PM on October 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Pulled into a stripmall parking lot at a slow time with the windows open and not in a hurry noticed a bird call. So just listened and another and another. There were a light border of trees but not much and not that many birds. But kept hearing different birds. Had not realized Mockingbirds were in the area, but that must have been it as there were many very different songs.

There was a classical DJ years ago in boston that had the morning shift and an amazing collection of birdsong recordings. Best station ever for an early morning easy wake up.
posted by sammyo at 4:14 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Every birder I know has said that birding by ear is incredibly difficult. This recent episode of the BirdNote podcast was about mistaken identity and how hard it is to reliably identify birds from song.
posted by Lexica at 4:56 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've been working in my spare time for the last few months on training neural networks for bird identification... So this is very much up my alley!

I really love the Sound Approach to Birding; it's an easy read+listen that goes into different /concepts/ in listening to birds in a way that I haven't seen in any other book. Things like specific effects of environment, and looking at specific examples of similar motifs differing across species... And some good concrete examples of what kinds of manipulations happen to 'professionally recorded' bird sound, so you can know a bit better what to expect when going from recordings to the field.

Also worth checking out the Xeno Canto collection, which has many-tens-of-thousands of recordings from all over the world. For example, here's 210 recordings of barn owls (tyto alba)...

(Despite all my effort, I still only really know a handful of species... I spend a lot of my time fine tuning models and reading the literature, but need to find more time for like actual birding...)
posted by kaibutsu at 11:34 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am getting better at birding by ear. I am definitely a mnemonic device person, and that link for visualizing a whole scenario works well for me. Some sounds are pretty consistent, like the mentioned barred owl saying “Who cooks for YOOOOOUUU” or a towhee saying “Drink your TEEEA”. Both woodcock and nighthawks definitely say “peent”. The field sparrow does sound like a bouncing ball (in my mind a dodgeball, pink like it’s beak, bouncing in a field). But most of them don’t sound like what birders tell me they sound like. Here are some of my own: The common yellowthroat doesn’t say “wichety” it says “look at me” (and I always think of Three Amigos “look up here”). Cardinals sound like car alarms. Brownheaded cowbirds sound like R2D2. Indigo buntings don’t actually sound like the bluebirds in Snow White, but they have a thin musical quality and are on the tops of trees and are blue so I always associate them with it. Mourning doves sound like they’re sad and saying “ohhhOHHHHohh no no no”. . Loons are the horror movie bird sounds on the lake at night and kinda sound like howling wolves. I’d love to hear what some other folks’ mnemonics are for bird sounds!
posted by oomny at 9:14 AM on October 24, 2018

oomny, I just ran a quick search and see a bunch of mnemonics for bird song.

I have been trying some of these with Morse and find them hit-or-miss as to whether they help / stick in my memory. They seem to be very personal. I have come up with some of my own such as "feed the FIRE-fox" for F (••—•).
posted by exogenous at 10:35 AM on October 24, 2018

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