birding by ear, with cornell lab of o’s all about bird song
EVER HEARD the expression “birding by ear”? Despite my years-old collection of CDs (and even older tapes!), I have never gotten good at telling who’s who, sight unseen, perhaps knowing merely 15 of the 60ish avian voices who visit each year. A new online resource called All About Bird Song from Cornell Lab of Ornithology aims to improve our ability to retain the vocalizations by visualizing them—and also reveals what song is all about: its purpose, its mechanics, and just how amazing a feat it actually is.
The Lab of O is nearly 100 years old–founded in 1915–and in the digital era has just grown more spectacular. Mya Thompson, PhD, has a hand in that, as an eLearning Specialist at the Lab, and Project Leader for its undertaking called All About Bird Biology, of which All About Bird Song is a part. She joined me on the radio podcast and taught me to listen closer, and more.
Did you know, for instance, that many birds have to learn to sing—not unlike a child learning to speak? That there are local dialects? Or that, thanks to a specialized voicebox, some birds sing two notes at once?
With this edition of the radio program (dated Oct. 20, 2014), I highly recommend you listen in, because Mya brought along recordings to illustrate each point. I’ve tried in the transcript to provide videos, or at least green links, to help you patch it together, but better you stream the show, which began with audio of a summertime dawn chorus—many birds singing, as night turns to day.
bird-song q&a with mya thompson
Q. The birds wake me up here very early in spring-into-summer. What’s all that singing?
A. We refer to a dawn chorus as the cacophony of birds that usually early in the morning–and especially during mating season–greets us as we wake up. It’s a common phenomenon around the world, but it’s actually a bit of a scientific mystery.
Q. We don’t know what it’s all about?
A. We have a good guess, though. It’s likely, because a lot of bird song is about males showing off, that it’s mostly about males reaffirming their territory at the start of each day. It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?
Q. Let’s backtrack and hear a little about the Lab of O.
A. We were founded in 1915, as the first graduate course in ornithology, by Arthur Allen. Then in 1945, a group of people formed a bird sanctuary, where our visitor center and offices live now [called Sapsucker Woods; learn about visiting at this link]. The sanctuary was meant to save a population of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but it attracts many birds through the year.
Now we’re a science and outreach institution, part of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We have more than 45,000 members, and we rely on them.
Q. Before we hear another note of bird song, or talk about any particular bird, let’s explain what the word “songbird” means, anyhow.
A. Not all birds are songbirds. It’s a title reserved for a group of closely related species, including thrushes, warblers and sparrows, and what sets them apart is that they have a complex, two-sided voicebox [illustrated, left]. We have a single voicebox; they have a double. That helps them make much more interesting sounds.
The other thing that sets songbirds apart is that they learn to sing, which helps them sing with more variety. So a cardinal is a songbird; a crow is not.
Q. So songbirds actually learn to sing? Like we learn to speak?
A. Yes. For instance, sparrows are famous in the bird world as song learners. They listen to the neighborhood songs as nestlings. They’re still in the nest and they’re listening and listening…but they don’t sing yet.
Then when they fledge and find a new habitat, they go through a babbling period, like young children do, before settling on their adult song. It’s something that’s quite remarkable; not a common phenomenon across the animal world.
[Listen on All About Bird Song to a young sparrow learning, and a more polished adult who has mastered song.]
Q. I assume we’re talking about young male birds learning from older males?
A. Chances are when you hear a bird singing in this neck of the woods, it’s a male. It’s more common for females to sing in tropical species, but everywhere both males and females make calls—calls to stay in touch and alert others to danger. But the more complex and melodious songs would be males, and they are doing it to show off and attract mates.
Q. So all vocalizations aren’t actually songs?
A. Some of the common sounds you hear could actually be coming from the same bird—sometimes singing, sometimes making calls. And the songs and calls together are their repertoires. When you start to learn to bird by ear, it’s fun to open your ears and hear that the birds you love actually have a number of different sounds.
Q. In the longtime All About Birds online encyclopedia, you get audio clips of the various sounds from the individual species, not just one from each bird.
I learned on the new All About Bird Songs feature that birds even have local dialects. Really?
A. Even among members of the same species, they might sing slightly different songs. This is just a natural occurrence, especially when populations get isolated somehow. It’s just like human dialects that closely knit neighbors are staring to use similar words and phrases, and that spins into its own dialect.
It is the same with birds–and it also is a natural outgrowth of the fact that they learn. It’s a very interesting biological phenomenon.
One of the things you can tune into, for instance: your black-capped chickadee might sound different from the one in my backyard:
The one in New York sings a “hey-sweetie” song. But if you go to a population in Martha’s Vineyard, which is somewhat isolated because it’s on an island, they sing something slightly different: “sweetie-hey.”
[The chickadee dialects are at about 11:50 into the podcast.]
A. Songbirds are true vocal gymnasts. They really can do things that nobody else can. The reason for this is their unique voicebox, called a syrinx [illustrated higher up], as opposed to our human larynx].
[How birds sing, in illustrations and animation, from All About Bird Song.]
For example, if we listen to the Northern cardinal, you’ll hear some repetitive “whoops” at the end. In those repetitive whoops you’ll recognize a sweep through more pitches than a piano in less than a tenth of a second. This is an amazing feat, and the way they do it is that they switch sides of their voicebox in the middle of the note—in that tenth of a second.
Q. Certain birds even sing two notes at once sometimes, right?
A. Yes, some songbirds are actually using both sides of their voicebox at the same time—making two notes at the same time—something we can’t even imagine doing. Think about if opera singers could sing two notes at the same time. That’s what the wood thrush can do. They really kick it up a notch, and sing two notes at once, and combine them in a final trill in their beautiful song.
Q. What about the veery?
A. The veery has one of the most musical songs of any songbirds, and it’s one of my favorites. They are just creating so many different musical tones as they go through their song. What I love is to let people listen to it at normal speed first, then hear it slow—it will blow your mind. The slowed-down version [at the bottom of the page on this link] sounds like a flute. [Or: at about 16:50 in the podcast.]
Q. So how can the new All About Bird Song help us with our skills at birding by ear?
A. Many of us, such as gardeners, who spend time outside want to improve their ability to recognize birds by ear, and just learn about this amazing phenomenon. It’s truly incredible what birds can do.
There’s kind of a deep connection when we listen to birds singing—an appreciation of what birds can do. One of the reasons we developed All About Bird Song is to help people tune into that: Birds are singing to be heard, but what’s going on there?
One of the things we’ve done is started off with some spectacular, up-close videos of some of your favorite songbirds, and they’re singing. You’re seeing them sing—which is pretty rare, to observe that. You’re seeing the beaks fly as they make these amazing vocal gymnastics. So kind of like lip-reading, it really helps me to see, because I’m a visual learner. It helps me to remember these songs, seeing what these vocal performances look like, as if you were seeing a bird on stage really belting it out.
And then we’ve created a fun game called Bird Song Hero…
Q. I failed! [Laughter.]
A. You failed?
Q. Well, I got maybe 50 percent right the first time.
Basically it’s a game that forces you to listen really closely to a song, and then what you have are three choices of different sound visualizations of bird songs [above], called spectrograms. I consider them pieces of art in themselves. They’re beautiful.
So you look at these visualizations, and listen closely, and try to make a match. It really does force you to sit and listen closely.
Q. Visualizing sound—it really does help me to remember the songs.
I want to be sure to give a special nod to that vocalist of all vocalists, the gray catbird. I share the garden with so many of them, and they are real talkers, aren’t they?
A. They take things to a new level, and they’re stealing other birds’ sounds.
Q. They’re mimics.
A. Yes, the mimicry evolved to really expand repertoire, to really, really show off. So you can learn the songs not just of your neighborhood and same species, but even cross-species.
Q. Not just from Dad, but from everybody.
A. Even from frogs sometimes!
Q. Thanks, Mya, for helping me listen more closely and learn to bird by ear.
more learning from all about birds
- Visit Allaboutbirds.org, or go directly to Allaboutbirds.org/biology, where songs are front and center now.
- Remember my interview with Mya Thompson when the in the All About Feathers area?
- Lab of O’s free online bird encyclopedia includes audio clips of song, life histories and more, and is used by 10 million visitors each year (including me, nearly daily).
- The Lab’s video collection, including 90-plus of them, can be browsed at this link.
- Want a bird ID app for your iPhone or Android? Try Lab of O’s Merlin.
- Consider membership in the Lab of O (52 percent of their funding comes from us!).
prefer the podcast?
MYA THOMPSON was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The October 20, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(Illustrations copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)