Name That Tune: Bird Songs

Bird Songs of Western North Carolina

Carolina Wren. Photo by Warren Lynn

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura and Hal Mahan

“The birds sing blissfully until the joy
Is so great as to be unbearable:
This joy cannot be heard from afar,
But if you come near it, you will succumb.”
~Reb Nachman

Spring is nearly upon us. It is the season of bird song, filling the air even after late winter snows blanket the ground. Bird watchers will tell you that learning to identify bird songs can be a challenging pursuit. Some birds are only heard for a brief few weeks, but then there are those that frequent our backyards and neighborhood woods all year round whose songs provide the soundtrack to our outdoor activities.

You might think that you can’t name a single bird song, but think again. Some of our most common songsters are easily recognizable. For example, the tiny black and white Carolina Chickadee says its name, “chicka-dee-dee-dee.” The Mourning Dove calls its sad, plaintive, “whoo-a whoo whoo whoo.” And certainly you know the raucous “caw caw caw” of the Common Crow.

Learning to recognize these songs is great fun, but takes some persistence over time. The best way to get started is to first learn the common songs that you hear in your own back yard, one at a time. These birds that you know and recognize can be eliminated from the pool of unknowns as you venture into other situations.

A great tool for this hobby is a small, hand-held voice recorder. When you hear a bird that you don’t recognize, record it, and play the recording over and over again to yourself until you have it memorized. Think about the song as though it can be written as notes on a musical scale. How many notes does it have? Do the notes go up or down the scale? Is there a discernable rhythm? Also think about whether the song is clear and loud, or soft and high. Does the bird sound hoarse as though it has a cold? Do any of the phrases repeat in a recognizable way?

At this time of year before the leaves come out, you have the luxury of watching the bird while it’s singing. Then you can look it up in your field guide and perhaps find some word phrases listed that will describe the song. These ‘mnemonics’ can be useful tools to jog your memory. For example, the nighttime hoot of the Barred Owl says, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The flight song of the American Goldfinch is, “Potato chip, potato chip.” The common Carolina Wren’s song is, “Tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle.” The song sparrow’s tune is a more difficult one song to learn, but beautiful and common in our neighborhoods. It says, “Maids-maids-maids-put-onyour- tea-kettle-ettle-ettle.”

Luckily, here in the Eastern US we have an abundance of audio learning tools for learning to identify birds by sound. As the leaves come out and the birds become much more difficult to spot with your binoculars, with some help from these tools you’ll still be able to identify them. And hopefully you’ll be led to more questions about bird songs, such as: How do they learn to sing? Why do they sing? Do birds have dialects? Do they sing different songs for different purposes? In nature there is always something new to learn!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.

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