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Why it’s worth learning to ID birds by sound

ID birds by sound
A male Tennessee Warbler sings to establish its breeding territory and attract a female. Photo by RRichard29/Shutterstock

As a sight-centric birder, I am surprised at how many of my most cherished birding memories involve sound. This audio ambivalence of mine harkens back to childhood. While I was gifted with exceptional eyesight, my hearing was only so-so. Naturally, I played to my strength.

I would eagerly anticipate the annual vision test in grammar school. As I sat in the folding chair, one hand over one eye, the school nurse would roll her eyes and say, “Oh, here we go again.” Ignoring the top lines, I would immediately go for the fine print at the bottom of the page and read it with ease.

But when the earphones were placed over my ears for the hearing test, there would be gaps in the tonal sequence accompanied by quizzical looks from the nurse. Yes, since childhood, I’ve been 40 percent deficient in the mid-range of sound. It was only natural, therefore, that I took birdwatching literally, and I was well into my teens before I realized what a delicious slice of the universe I was missing by not being attentive to bird vocalizations. It was the World Series of Birding that finally brought home to me the importance of bird sound.

More than half the birds tallied by top teams in this annual event are grabbed by the ears.

RTP: An audio master

It just so happened that an audio master was on our team in that inaugural year of 1984 — Roger Tory Peterson himself — whose ears were the stuff of legend. Backing him up were Pete “Golden Ears” Bacinski and a young journeyman birder named David Sibley. But for the first half-hour of the day, it was Roger who held center stage, pinning name after name to each vocalist to join the dawn chorus: “Purple Finch! Solitary [now Blue-headed] Vireo! Tennessee Warbler! Louisiana Waterthrush! Blue-winged Warbler!” And so on. Every bird punctuated with a stabbing index finger. And as I recall, it was David who added Orange-crowned Warbler on the way to our winning effort.

Still, all of us stood in awe at the skill level of the team’s senior member, who, at the age of 76, was the event’s oldest participant.

A Louisiana Waterthrush sings loudly on a cold sunny morning with its breath floating in the air. Photo by Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock

A year later, at the same North Jersey location, I stood with my British friend Jeff Delve and watched as his haggard face turned fraught with awe. Having just flown in from the U.K., whisked off to do a Big Day, Jeff was having his first experience with a North American dawn chorus.

For 20 minutes, we peppered him with bird names, but his ears had no room for particulars. Jeff was lost in the moment.

“What is that incredible din?” he finally asked. “Robins,” we intoned. Intent on adding new species to our list, we were listening right past the conjoined caroling of America’s lordly thrush.

It took a visitor to these shores to alert us to the specialness that is a robin. Typically, we get American Robin on our Big Day list at 2 a.m. as we fuel up at the Shell station on Green Pond Road. There, robins sing all night in the dawn-replicating neon glow cast by the station.

But my favorite World Series of Birding recollection is the night Will Russell, Don Freiday, Tom Reed, and I sat beside a road in the Sussex County grasslands and listened to an avalanche of Black-billed Cuckoos migrating overhead. Some years we miss the species, but that year, it was all we could do not to laugh out loud as more and more cuckoos chortled overhead. Indeed, on that inaugural World Series of Birding with Roger Peterson, Black-billed Cuckoo was the last bird tallied as we stumbled back to the car shortly after hearing Black Rail, whose frail kick-y-do call barely registered in my ears, #201. We’d done it, breaking the 200-species barrier in 24 hours, a milestone only reached by Texas and California way back in 1984.

Pervasive bird sounds

My other favorite bird sound recollections, while less frenetic in their achievement, are no less memorable. There was the night Linda and I camped on the edge of the seasonal ice cap north of Canada’s Baffin Island and thrilled to the clamor of thousands of love-struck Long-tailed Ducks all jammed up against the ice, waiting for ponds in the Arctic interior to thaw. Spring was running late, and the birds were frantic to get the breeding season underway. And nobody who has visited the Salisbury Plains of South Georgia can ever forget the brayed din woven by the conjoined voices of thousands of breeding King Penguins. The sound is as pervasive as the iodine-tainted reek of penguin colonies.

One of my earliest recollections of bird sound was serendipitous. I was a junior at Whippany Park High School. It was first-period gym class, the game flag football. Coach Terryhaut (nicknamed “the Teddy Bear”) had his Marine Corps recruitment poster face turned away when above the sound of our quarterback’s long count drifted the sound of migrating Canada Geese. Ignoring the count, we turned faces skyward to study the flock. Half a hundred birds in perfect echelon formation. Only after the last notes of the flock finally receded did we return to our three-point stance, fully anticipating the wrath of Coach Teddy Bear for delay of game. But instead of the expected reproach, all he said was, “Wasn’t that just too purty?”

And was it our imagination, or did we see the Teddy Bear raise a ham-sized paw to his enraptured face and wipe away a tear?

You new birders must understand that before geese became the bane of golf course groundskeepers and corporate lawn manicurists, the sound of migrating geese was special. Strangers would stop on the sidewalk, cock their ears, and exchange smiles.

Me? I still thrill to the sound of geese, any geese, but I confess that for sheer wildness, I prefer the sound of Tundra Swans, whose call has the conjoined qualities of both a whoop and a sigh.

So, if you, like me, have given bird vocalizations short shrift, adjust your focus and begin reaping a harvest of audio riches.

My good friend Don Freiday, whose hearing is exceptional, once allowed that he would rather lose his powers of sight than his hearing. I wouldn’t go so far myself, but I cannot help but admire the way Don can sort and organize the world with his ears alone. It’s a gift, and a gift that keeps on giving, season after season.

It begins with simply listening. After that, you start building your audio repertoire one bird song at a time. There is a reason the audio range of birds and humans overlap so broadly. Birds and humans are joined at the ear. So, listen up and start expanding your birding horizons.

Need hearing aids? Don’t dawdle, buy them. Dawn choruses await, and they are finite.

This article was published in the “Birder at Large” column in the May/June 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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