Mariton: Learning Bird Songs, Part III

April 24, 2018

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager.  Photos by Carole Mebus.

In Part I and Part II, we went over things to listen to when learning birds songs.

In Part II, I specifically said I couldn’t tell the difference between Billie Holiday’s voice and Madeline Peyroux’s.  Yet I could tell the difference by listening to their musicians.  What I hear is a difference in “time”.  Madeline Peyroux’s musicians studied the musicians of Billie’s era.  They have also been influenced by later musicians and different world rhythms.  They are musical masters, but can never sound the same as Billie Holiday’s musicians.  Their licks will be different.  They have to be different, their experiences are different from those earlier masters.  And I can hear the difference.

Worm-eating Warbler

To relate that to bird songs, I am hearing “habitat” in the difference between Billie Holiday and Madeline Peyroux.  So, a Worm-eating Warbler’s song may share similarities with a Chipping Sparrow’s song, but I don’t expect to find them in the same place.  The habitat is the bit of information I use in differentiating the two songs.

Chipping Sparrow

Similarly, if I am in a brushy area and hear a buzzing bird song that ascends in increments, I am going to immediately think of a Prairie Warbler.

Prairie Warbler

And if I find myself in a field or brushy area and hear a song that I recognize, but can’t quite identify, I will ask myself is that an Indigo Bunting?  We use the mnemonic “Fire! Fire! Where? Where? Here! Here!”, but that doesn’t really capture what the Indigo Bunting is singing, it just captures the rhythm of the song for me.  The habitat is my first clue, then I think about the mnemonic to verify my gut.

Indigo Bunting

Identifying bird songs, is like identifying birds themselves.  You take bits of information:  size, location, color, flight pattern, etc. to help you identify a bird.  I call it “spinning the Rolodex”.    (Younger audiences might call it scrolling through the Contacts).  Either way it is about sorting through all the bits of information that your brain stores and categorizes until you need it.  As you get older their are more cards in your mental Rolodex (or more contacts in your phone), so it takes a little longer to sort through everything to locate the answer.  Habitat is just another piece of useful information to log into your mental storage.