Birding by Ear

I attended my very first Seabrook Island Birders activity back in January, 2022. It was a golf course event so my non-birding husband tagged along to drive the cart while I looked. While I had always loved birds and kept feeders, I’d never joined a group birding event before.

SIB birding from Golf Carts – Jackie Brooks

And wow, was I impressed! I never expected to see so many birds in one morning – we saw 48 species! But what really impressed me was the other birders. I remember listening to Bob and Judy calling out throughout the walk: “I hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker” or “There’s an Orange-crowned Warbler in those bushes, I hear it!” WHAT? How do they know that?!

I finally had to ask Bob how one goes about learning to identify birds by their song and he gave me some great advice. Bob had an educational background and a career working in a birding environment for years so he obviously had the advantage. Frequent birders also learn from repetition and group discussion, that’s a big advantage to going to SIB outings on a regular basis. We learn so much from one another! But I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. So Bob recommended a CD (yes, a good old fashioned CD that you play in an actual CD player). Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central (Peterson Field Guides) by Richard K Walton. The only problem was, I no longer had a CD player, not even in my car.

I bought it anyway, then bought a portable disc drive, burned it onto my computer, transferred that to a playlist that I could listen to on my phone, and I was ready to learn. Even though I can now listen to this any time, any place, I find myself listening the most when I’m in my car, on the way to and from work each day. Or on the 4-5 hour drive to Seabrook.

The technique used on this particular audio book works quite well. It teaches you phrases, rhythms and sounds to associate with what the bird is “saying”. For instance, “who cooks for you” (Barred Owl); “who’s awake, me too” (Great Horned Owl); “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” (Carolina Wren); “witchity, witchity, witchity” (Common Yellowthroat), a squeaky wheel going round and round (Black & White Warbler) or one of my favorites – “drink your tea” (Eastern Towhee).

There’s the name sayers: Carolina Chickadee (“Chick-a-dee dee dee dee dee”), Eastern Whip-poor-will (“whip-poor-a-will”), Chuck-will’s-widow (“chuck-will’s widow”), the Eastern wood-Pewee (with his whiny “pee-ah-wee”) and the Eastern Phoebe (with an abrupt “phoeBE”). The Killdeer and Northern Bobwhite also fit into this category, can you guess what they say?!

Then there’s the category of birds that mimic sounds – Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird. The audio book points out that Brown Thrashers usually repeat phrases once or twice while the Mockingbird repeats their phrases four or five times. The Gray Catbird usually doesn’t repeat his phrases but the mewing cat-like sounds mixed in with a variety of other songs helps it stand apart.

The audio book goes on to cover chippers, trillers, sing-songers, simple and complex vocalizations, warblers, high-pitchers, hawks and woodpeckers. And that’s just the first set of CDs! There’s a second set, aptly titled “More Birding by Ear”, that includes sounds we often hear around Seabrook Island – rails, waterbirds, shorebirds, sparrows and even more warblers.

But why bother learning all these songs and calls when we have great apps like Merlin that can tell us which birds we’re hearing? For me, I like to know what my “resident” birds sound like, that way I can immediately recognize a newcomer to my backyard. Many birds are well hidden in brush or in a leafy tree, or maybe they only sing or call out at night, so hearing them might just be the only way to know they’re there. And while technology has made bird identification so much easier, it’s still not perfect. I once had Merlin tell me a barking dog was a Barred Owl!

I’ll never forget that a Ruby-crowned Kinglet sounds like a typewriter or that the Fish Crow always says a nasal “ah-ah”. These I learned at another SIB activity and they’ve stuck with me ever since. In fact, I wouldn’t have known to look for this little Kinglet in the tree if I hadn’t heard him first!

Our field of vision is limited to only a fraction of our environment while our auditory sense is constantly attuned to 360 degrees. Learning to identify birds by their song can also help us differentiate between birds of similar appearance. It’s enjoyable, poetic, musical, and often our best method of knowing which of our feathered friends are in our backyard.

Learning birdsong can be challenging but it’s good exercise for the brain. There are audio books, apps for your phone, and online classes. In fact, check out The Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy for all sorts of classes, including one on bird song. But no matter which method you choose, the best way to learn is in the field. There’s no substitute for getting out there and learning to recognize all the beautiful birds around us every day.

Submitted by Gina Sanders
Photos by Gina Sanders

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