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David Sibley explains how birds that really want to be noticed use visual signals as well as song

SIGHT AND SOUND: A male Common Yellowthroat displays its bright yellow throat and black cheeks to full effect when it sings. Art by David Allen Sibley.
SIGHT AND SOUND: A male Common Yellowthroat displays its bright yellow throat and black cheeks to full effect when it sings. Art by David Allen Sibley.

Identifying birds is really about understanding birds. Being attuned to the basics of bird behavior can help us put a name on species. Spring is the time of courtship behavior. Singing birds surround us, and their songs offer multiple clues to their identity.

We humans interpret birdsong as a joyous outpouring — a celebration of the end of winter, the reawakening of spring, the return of warmth and light. To birds, it is mostly a form of advertising, a macho display for potential mates and rivals. Each singer wants to be noticed, and most species try to be conspicuous using both sight and sound.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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