Friday, April 11, 2014

Birding by Ear

I doubt I have to convince many of you that paying attention to bird voices enhances your overall birding experience. Listening to birds and learning their songs does several things for you: it increases your awareness of birds and the diversity of sounds they make, and gives you a better understanding of their world and how they interact with it. Best of all, it impresses the heck out of your friends. Friends who already think you're a little too birdnerdy (but birds are so hip right now!) will be utterly convinced of this once you interrupt a conversation with, "Hey, I think I just heard a common nighthawk *peent* overhead!" (This happened to me in southeast Portland, not an everyday bird in those parts.)

But inside they're jealous, completely green with envy, and secretly covet your seemingly omniscient ability.

They think, "How can I get that superpower?"

Truly, it's simple. I say that now, after being at it for more than twenty years, but I'm pretty sure it's still simple.

First of all, you must be patient with yourself. You did not learn to walk, talk, do calculus, or write a book as soon as the urge hit you. You tried, failed, tried again, practiced, practiced, practiced, and here you are: living proof that those things and more can be achieved with time, patience, and practice.

Second of all, do you have ears? If yes, then use them! How did I learn birdsong? Oh yeah, it was that one app they had back in the late '80s called Being Outside. I kid, but really it was being outside for extended periods of time, listening to songs then tracking down the singer, that gave me a leg up. If you have just thirty minutes a day to listen, you can gets lots of practice time in.

OK, so now you're feeling all gooey and warm and fuzzy about all the things listening to birds can do for you and how with just thirty minutes to an hour a day you can easily devote your entire spring to mastering the art of birding by ear. Yes, I Can! And I encourage you to dive right in!

Open your ears and practice. Every time you walk to the car, the store, the mailbox, you should picture your ears as giant deer ears, rotating and gathering sound from all points. Start to filter out the cars, the planes, the barking dog, and mentally turn your ears toward that tree that always has birds in it, or to your feeder that the finches always go to. Chances are those birds are chatting about something and you can listen in. Find them, look at them, watch them sing. The pursuit of the singer helps cement the song in your mind.

Reinforce with recordings. We are lucky to have so many recordings at our fingertips, whether on a CD, online at Cornell's web site, or right in the palm of our hand in a birding app like iBird or Sibley. Reading about the song, looking at a photo of the bird while listening to it sing, taking quizzes on songs are all good tools for reinforcement. Does that make the learning process any easier or faster? It certainly helps. I treasure my recordings and still pop a CD into the player to keep on learning. That being said, no amount of tech can substitute for yes, that's right, you guessed it...Being Outside.

Take a class or go on a guided birdwalk. If you have someone right there who's telling you what you're listening to, the learning curve is suddenly not so treacherous. I teach three versions of Birding By Ear every spring. The Resident Birds class starts tonight, Migrant Birds starts in May, and Nesting Birds starts in June. Good for me, bad for you: all sessions are full. But if you're in the Portland area do check out the spring morning birdsong walks, linked above. On more generic birdwalks, most leaders have at least some familiarity with local bird sounds and are happy to point them out. And there may be other participants who really know their sounds and can help you out.

Birding can be a social pursuit or a solitary one. If you start out in a group, learning from a teacher and each other, you should also strike out on your own to test your listening skills when not distracted by people noises. Likewise solitary birders might pick up tips from a group. Birds are more likely to settle down and accept your presence when you are alone, and you might finally track down that one singer that's been driving you nuts. I encourage you to slow down, sit down, and listen. The birds will be singing for you all spring!


Michele said...

It's quite possible that my ears are a more important birding tool than my binoculars.

Rhett Wilkins said...

When I first started birding, I read that expert birders identify 90% of their birds by ear. I thought to myself, "No way. That's ridiculous, and impossible." Now, while I'm nowhere near an expert, I identify at least 90% of my birds by ear. It's true! You'll hear far more than you see when you learn not only melodies but also voices. It's absolutely lovely to walk through the woods identifying birds while you simply look at plants and enjoy the breeze.

Laura W. said...

Yep, I knew I was preaching to the choir with you lot...
I'd rather be blind than deaf because my spotting is for crap but my hearing's much better. Contact lenses help with my bad sight, but hearing aids would only add to the overall noise and make it hard to filter. So while I'd rather be neither blind nor deaf, if pressed I'd pick blind.

Jen Sanford said...

Yeah, as much as you know I hate to admit it, birding with others does have its advantages. Recently I was being driven nuts by a bird song that sounded kind of like a Swainson's Thrush but not really. In seconds Rhett was able to set me straight that it was a Purple Finch. I would probably still be trying to figure that one out if not for him being there. Dang it.