I've always enjoyed watching birds at our feeders around the house and the few I can spot while out on walks.
But I seldom get a good enough look to be able to identify too many of them. The books will tell you to notice features such as a ring around the eye, a white bar on the wings or some other detail that I'm rarely able to see. Far too often, the lighting isn't right or the bird is hidden behind a branch so these visual clues aren't that helpful. But I am able to hear many different types of birds, most of which I can't see at all.
So I've tried listening to bird songs on tape to try to figure out who it is I'm hearing. All those songs, one after the other, however, quickly become a blur. That was, until I was introduced to "Birding By Ear," a CD set put out by the Peterson Field Guide Series by Richard Walton and Robert Lawson. This recording takes a completely different approach from other bird song recordings I've tried. Walton and Lawson take 85 birds from eastern and central North America and sort them into learning groups of just four to eight species. They then contrast and compare these few birds, giving listeners tricks on how to identify each one.
Once they explain the particular clue to listen for, they go back and forth between a couple of birds so you have several chances to practice what you've learned. For example, the downy woodpecker has a downward chatter, while the hairy woodpecker has a similar chatter but it stays at a more steady pitch. If you heard either one alone it would be hard to tell them apart at first. But once you've heard them compared one after the other a few times, it's relatively easy to hear the difference.
For years I've been mystified by a bird in our woods that I figured must be some kind of thrush, but I could never figure out which one it was. Thrushes have a complex song with quite a bit of variation. But the trick I learned from this recording was to listen to just the opening notes. The hermit thrush starts his song with one long note, then a series of complex notes and pitches. The wood thrush starts his song with short notes and then has a characteristic "eee-oy-lay" somewhere in the middle. After learning this trick, it was easy for me to figure out that my thrush is a hermit thrush. I was relieved to realize I didn't need to understand all the complex notes that follow, since I can clearly hear his long introductory note.
Almost everyone knows what a chickadee's song sounds like, but actually, that is their call. Their song is a sweet two-note phrase that sounds like he's saying "phoebe." Phoebes are common birds to our area, too, so for years I thought that sweet "phoebe" song was coming from them. But it's not. The phoebe's song is a harsh, raspy and rather abrupt "phoebe," often heard in the morning as you're lying in bed, trying to get a few more minutes sleep.
Before I found this recording, I could identify a crow, chickadee and bluejay on my morning walks. Now, on mild spring mornings, on that same walk, I can usually hear and identify each of these birds: ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, song sparrow, goldfinch, downy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, ruffed grouse, hermit thrush, common yellowthroat, robin, white-throated sparrow, yellow warbler and bluebird.
Learning to recognize what I'm hearing tells me much more of what's around me than if I only use my eyes.
Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: www.cce.cornell.edu/ecgardening. Email questions to askMG@cornell.edu.