"It's the dewit-e-o bird," I said as a group of us walked through the woods on an Audubon bird walk. A new bird call to me, I could clearly hear the words given to the bird song as a memory aid. But without looking in my notes, I couldn't remember what I should look for flitting around in the trees.
A fellow birder helped me, remembering it was a hooded warbler. Despite hearing two birds sing repeatedly "wit-dewit-dewit-e-o," it took us about 10 minutes to spot one. With patience and persistence, we finally saw the aptly named bright yellow warbler with its distinctive black hood. Without being able to match the bird song to the specific bird, I don't think we would have seen that bird or many other birds on our forest walk. The trees and bushes had already leafed out, making it difficult to discover our feathered friends.
How often do you walk through the woods, past a field or even in town paying little attention to the natural world? The sounds of birds are just background noise to our thoughts, conversations and activities. To the birds, their vocalizations are much more than that. They are often a complex communication about attracting a mate, defending territory, begging for food or scolding young. Knowing a little bit about bird vocalization can help us "tune in" to the animal world and eavesdrop on their dramatic lives.
First, it's helpful to know a little about basic bird vocalization. Most birders distinguish between a song and a call. A bird song is a complex, often musical vocalization. Beautiful and seemingly unprompted, we often think that birds are singing for the sheer joy of being alive. But songs are mostly made by males establishing or maintaining breeding territory or trying to attract a female. The loud "cheerily, cheeriup, cheerio, cheerily" you hear outside your window before your alarm goes off in the morning is the American robin. This common backyard bird is either saying "Hey, beautiful lady robin," or "Dude, get out of here. This is my spot."
Bird calls are generally simple, short vocalizations. These "chirps" and "peeks" are a little more complicated and difficult to distinguish between birds. Recently I opened a nestbox to check a black-capped chickadee nest and heard the familiar raspy "dee dee dee" coming from a nearby bush. I felt like I was clearly being scolded by the chickadee parent giving its typical alarm call. In their lives, birds use calls to communicate with each other about danger, competition, learning to fly or feeding. Depending on the situation, bird calls may be interpreted as "Everybody freeze, there's a hawk," "Mom, I'm hungry!" or "Here I am, even though you can't see me in the dark as we're migrating."
Many birders put words or imagery to bird songs that help to describe and distinguish the songs. Some are so distinctive even to my nonmusical ears that it sounds like the bird is speaking. Here are a few songs from fairly common birds that clearly stand out to me.
Next time you are in the woods stop and listen for a loud and repetitive "teacher, teacher, teacher," of the ovenbird. When the leaves are on the trees this small, olive-colored bird may be hard to spot but easy to hear.
The yellow warbler is another bird that rarely shows itself, but is distinctive in its song. In wet, shrubby areas, listen for "sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet." At times, I think it stutters on the last "sweet."
The song of the red-eyed vireo doesn't lend itself to words or syllables but as soon as I hear the short songs separated by a pause, I picture a playground swing. The notes of the first song get higher. There's a pause. Then the notes of the following song get lower. And the song keeps going - up to 40 times a minute and up to 10,000 songs a day! Red-eyed vireos hang out in the upper canopy of the forest so they are hard to spot. But once you learn their song, you'll notice that they are around, even on hot summer days.
Distinguishing and identifying bird songs and calls can be daunting for beginners and experienced birders alike. Try your hand at learning a few and you'll find that a layer of mystery is lifted from the natural world. Once my ears were accustomed to hearing and identifying the song of the hooded warbler, I could hear them everywhere. The bird songs became less of a background noise and more of an accompaniment to my walk and a soundtrack to my adventures.
There are many more tips and tricks to help decipher the complicated communication of birds. This is also an area where technology shines, for there are myriad recordings available on websites, CDs and MP3s to help you. Start with just a few songs, don't get overwhelmed, and get outside and listen.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk and the center is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Sunday we are open from 1-4:30 p.m. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.