The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Bird Songs Mean Springtime
by Ro Wauer

It takes only a few sunny days to encourage our songbirds to begin singing. Even some of our wintertime-only species get the urge, although their songs are less emphatic and never as complete as they are on their breeding grounds later in spring. But our full time residents already are actively singing, some on a territory they will begin defending as the season progresses. Even if you are not an active birder, you are likely to recognize most of the resident's songs.

For instance, the cardinal's songs are loud and distinct, usually described as "wheer, wheer, wheer" or "hew hew hew." Some of the cardinal's notes can be similar to those of Carolina wren's. But the Carolina wren's song can be so varied that it can be confusing. Just in my yard I have heard them singing the typical "tea-kettle" song, while a few minutes later they will give a "wheedle, wheedle, wheedle" or "goad-it, goad, goad-it." It often takes a very discerning ear to recognize a Carolina wren. Of course, the songs of Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice are reasonably easy, "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" and "peter-peter-peter," respectively.

Some of the other easy to recognize songs include the killdeer's "kill-dee," the crow's "caw," the blue jay's "jay" or "thief," the white-eyed vireo's "chick-a-per-weeoo-chick," and the mockingbird's various and extensive singing. The mockingbird's repertoir can contain a weird assortment of notes, and often contains those of other birds. For the most part, folks know more bird songs than they usually give themselves credit for knowing. But as the spring progresses and we begin to hear songs from some of the returning nesters and migrants that are just passing through, it can get rather complicated.

I must admit that, in spite of spending the last 40 years watching and listening to birds, I find myself relearning some bird songs every spring. Some of the songs are easy to remember one season to the next, but others are more difficult. Certainly, hearing the first warble-song of a returning purple martin or a chipping song of a chimney swift is no problem. But migrating warblers often are more difficult.

Learning bird songs is easiest when accompanying an experienced birder in the field. He/she can point out the various songs, providing truly important insight into the world of birdsong. Some folks learn bird songs very well from CDs or tapes, and with the current technology, one can actually take the sounds into the field. But it is still a matter of targeting the individual to learn its particular song.

When asked about how best to go about learning bird songs, the key answer is repetition. See the bird and hear its song over and over again. Sometimes the use of mnemonics, the act of translating the sounds into human speech, works. "Bob-white," "kill-deer," "whip-poor-will," and "chick-a-dee" are easy. But others songs are less workable. And although some birding experts never utilize mnemonics, I find it very useful. It at least makes one listen to the bird's song, and forces one to separate phrases or syllables into some sort of order. And it can also be fun. Making up your own renditions can actually enhance the learning process.

However, lots of folks who love the outdoors and listen to birdsongs and enjoy the various seasons, never care about learning the birds. Although those of us who study birds and do annual surveys to better understand birds and the changing environment, must know the songs, others can appreciate our natural resources without the identity of the birds. More power to them!


At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am hearing a bird the past few days that I am not familiar with in upstate NY. It sounds like a repetition of 4 "cheapa, cheapa, cheapa, cheapa"...then sometimes a solid "chip" at the end. Any idea what kind of bird that is? Thank you.


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