by Denny Olson

Frustrated with Birding ID by Ear? Help is on the way!

There are 270 nesting species of birds in Montana, and 435 species that we know have at least passed through on their travels. They all make some kinds of noises, and those noises are at least slightly different from each other, and some are radically different. For the birds, this is critical. Because they can literally go by air anywhere they like, they need a mechanism to find each other — for breeding, for nesting, for safety, and for reassurance. And that mechanism is sound.

Many male migrants arrive early, to sing and threaten their way to a mating advantage. And then when females arrive later, the songs serve as “come hither” attraction. But recognizing 400-plus birds by sight quickly is the rarified air of master birders. Many folks just want the ability to identify and separate the robins from the pigeons. But recognizing 400-plus birds by their songs is on another scale of difficulty — especially if music and pitch don’t come easily.

But here’s the key to the obsessively nerdy act of birdwatching and bird identification. We never get “good enough”. There is always something new to learn, and a new elusive rare bird to chase. You can add a third bird to the robin and pigeon list, or your 433rd  to your Montana list. Almost all of us are somewhere between, and in process.

Birding by eye is hard enough, so why add another dimension of complication to it by learning bird sounds as well? Well, there are actually four good reasons. (1) You love music, and birds invented it. (2) You are an auditory-dominant learner. (3) Advantageously, while birding by sight, you know where to look to see a bird, and who to look for. (4) And, if you choose, you can go birding without your binoculars, and never look for them at all!

And really, isn’t making new friends partly about learning their language first?

A lot of people actually never hear bird song. They walk through the woods and bird song is just background “white noise” — something they have never paid attention to (unfortunately for them, I think). Once you do begin to notice them, on a normal spring morning with 30 birds singing all at the same time, the idea of learning the differences between all of them is completely overwhelming. Fret not. We have all been there. Isolate one bird song, learn it, and move on to a second one. I started there myself, and then the addiction began.

Encouragement: you can do this! Warning: it takes patience. Another warning: You will never be “done”. As that wise Saturday Night Live sage, Rosanna Rosannadonna often said, “There’s always something … “

After diving in, I eventually realized (thinking about thinking) that I used a process of elimination that mechanical trouble-shooters, or cops after a suspect, have used for hundreds of years: Keep eliminating possibilities until there is only one conclusion, or suspect, or bird species, left on the list. Here’s how I eventually organized that process: The “Binary Search” process of elimination: Starting with broad categories (e.g. Fur? It’s a mammal. Feathers? It’s a bird …), keep splitting them into two or more types, until you are down to a specific species. The first categories eliminate the most birds from consideration; the last categories get to the fine points of identifying a specific bird. Birding by ear, here’s how to start winnowing the list of 435:

  • Season. If it is winter, you have cut the list in half already.
  • Geographical area. In Montana, where you are chops the list in half again.
  • Habitat. Marsh, alpine, river-bottom — we are getting closer to a manageable list.
  • General Sound Characteristics. (whistle, croak, quack, trill, oddball?)
  • Pitch. (low Great Gray Owl/Ruffed Grouse to ultra-high Brown Creeper, and everything between)
  • Cadence or Rhythm. (Black-capped Chickadee vs. Mountain Chickadee)
  • Speed. (slow Common Loon to 36 notes/second Pacific Wren)
  • Pacing / Spacing. (frequent Red-eyed Vireo vs. Cassin’s ……… Vireo …… long …… pauses)

Did you notice how quickly the process zeroes on a specific bird? In a month or two, I will have a video on the FAS website — complete with birdsong imitations by yours truly — to get much more specific with learning bird song. Watch for it!