The ‘Warbler Guide’ authors tell what to do when you can’t identify a bird song

Yellow Warbler at Robert Moses State Park, Massena, New York, June 16, 2014, by xmailmand.
Yellow Warbler at Robert Moses State Park, Massena, New York, June 16, 2014, by xmailmand.

Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, authors of the best-selling 2013 book The Warbler Guide, give voice to a familiar birder’s lament in our April 2016 issue:

When we see a bird we can’t identify, we can make use of a thorough and detailed language to describe all of the bird’s field marks. But when we hear an unknown bird song, we’re out of luck.

“We don’t have a clear set of terms to help us describe what we’re hearing, and without objective terminology, it’s difficult to remember important points later,” they write. “Worse, if you start listening to recordings to match your bird, it’s all over; the original song will be tough to recall.”

A SONG’S FINGERPRINT: A sonogram shows a sound’s pitch and length and the relative loudness of its parts. The sonogram above makes the three-part structure of Yellow Warbler’s song clear. A time scale, in seconds, appears on the bottom. The pitch or frequency scale is on the right.
A SONG’S FINGERPRINT: A sonogram shows a sound’s pitch and length and the relative loudness of its parts. The sonogram above makes the three-part structure of Yellow Warbler’s song clear. A time scale, in seconds, appears on the bottom. The pitch or frequency scale is on the right.

Frustrated, Stephenson and Whittle created their own descriptive system, which uses four objective, simple criteria to notate the unique properties of a song. “Our characteristics can help identify an unknown species, separate similar-sounding species, and aid in memorizing songs. We’ve tested the system in workshops and groups across the United States and found it to be effective for birders of all skill levels.”

The authors lay out their system in an article illustrated with almost three dozen audio spectrograms, or sonograms. Sonograms are pictures of sound. They show a song’s frequency range, its length, and the relative loudness of its different elements.

They make it easy to see a song’s structure and help our ears focus on subtle but often key characteristics. Without sonograms, write Stephenson and Whittle, we would have no easy way to examine and point out a song’s characteristics. Studying songs without sonograms would be like learning identification without pictures.

You can record songs and then make sonograms yourself using either Cornell’s Raven Lite software or the program Audacity. Both are free. Each will produce useable sonograms even if you made your recordings with the voice recorder on your phone.

BirdGenie, an app developed by Stephenson and Whittle and Stephen Travis Pope, will identify about 100 vocalizations of common eastern and western species. In addition, it will immediately display a sonogram of anything you record, even if the bird isn’t a covered species. Princeton University Press is expected to release the app in the second quarter of this year.

The April 2016 issue of BirdWatching containing Stephenson and Whittle’s article “Whistles, Buzzes and Trills” went on sale at Barnes & Noble and on other newsstands in early March. You can also read the issue on a range of digital devices.

See a list of species covered in BirdGenie East and BirdGenie West.

Cornell Big Day birders and a tour leader give six tips for birding by ear.

 

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