birding by ear, with nathan pieplow: how to listen to what birds say
EVERY SPRING I promise to learn to recognize a few more voices—bird voices—to tune in more observantly to the members of the incredible chorus around me. When Nathan Pieplow’s new book, the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” arrived in March, I thought: Help has arrived!
Just as the birds are trying to tell one another something with the sounds they make, we, too, need a vocabulary for what we’re hearing. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. The book helps us learn the words to describe sounds, and more.
Nathan Pieplow is an expert ”earbirder” who has been intensively studying and recording birds since 2003. A South Dakota native, he lives in Boulder and teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado.
He joined me on my public-radio show and podcast to help us understand a little bit more about what birds are saying, and especially how to be a better listener and “crack the code of what birds are actually saying.”
Be sure to comment at the very bottom of the page for a chance to win the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America.
what birds are saying, with nathan pieplow
Q. The more I spend time with the book, the more I start to “get it.” It’s not like a regular field guide, where you just look at pictures and say, “I’m looking for a red throat and a black crown and a wing bar,” you know what I mean? [Laughter.]
Q. It’s a different kind of book, but very interesting. You describe it in the introduction as “a dictionary for the language of the birds.”
A. That’s the idea. There really weren’t any field guides to bird sounds, before mine came out. I kind of had to invent a new kind of book in order to create a field guide to sounds.
The book illustrates the sounds—it creates a picture of each sound using what we call a spectrogram, which is a computer-generated graph of the sound. Reading a spectrogram is kind of like reading music. You read from left to right, and the high notes are at the top and the low notes at the bottom.
It’s just that the notes’ shapes are different, based on what the bird sounds like, what its tone quality is. So if you learn a few basic shapes, and learn a few other tricks and rules, you can learn how to picture a sound and you can also learn how to look at a spectrogram and understand what it’s going to sound like.
Q. And there is a companion sound website to the book, too, at PetersonBirdSounds dot com, so you can use both tools concurrently to deepen your understanding.
How long was the book in the making? This was not a simple thing that you have done. After having the book a couple of months, each time I use it I say, “Oh, I didn’t get that till right now.” It’s a lot of layers.
A. I set out to create this book in 2003, so it was 14 years in the making for the Eastern volume, and I am currently hard at work on the Western volume.
Q. And when we say “East,” people should understand: Don’t tune out if you’re not on the literal East Coast; it’s a big area.
A. It includes the Great Plains, the Midwest, the South and the East.
Q. The same ideas that birds have a language, and that these pictures or spectrograms help to depict them, is good for anyone, anywhere, who is trying to bird by ear, as I keep trying to do better.
Let’s get right back to that dictionary-and-language idea. What are the birds talking about? It’s not just, “I hear the cardinal,” but there is language going on. What are the birds talking about? I know the many catbirds who nest in my garden sound like a bunch of crazy drunks at a bar; it sounds like they’re talking nonsense, but I don’t think they are.
A. Each species of bird has its own language, so you need to learn each different sound from each species and figure out what it means. We can use the cliff swallow as an example.
Q. If people don’t know the cliff swallow, where does it reside; where do people see it? [Photo above from Wikimedia.]
A. It lives all across the country. In the South, it’s only there in migration. But otherwise it’s almost everywhere. They live in colonies under bridges and in culverts, and they build nests, and they fly out during the day and then they capture insects on the wing.
Q. Like the other swallows we see acrobatically doing, or aerobatically.
Q. I know you brought along some sound files. Do you want to tell us what we are going to hear the cliff swallow “say”?
A. Cliff swallows have a very simple language, but they have several different words—we can call them words. One is the word that they use for danger, and that is this “zeer” call that they give.
Q. So let’s hear that.
[Sound of cliff swallow saying “zeer” danger call; at 5:48 in recording.]
Q. That does sound like something’s wrong—and we just repeated that; the bird wouldn’t do it in that fast progression.
A. That sound file was looped, but that’s the same basic call that they would give over and over again if they were upset. You would hear it if you go under the bridge and get close to their nests and fly close to your head, and they will say, “zeer, zeer, zeer”—all of them will say the same thing. It basically means “danger.”
Q. What’s next in their vocabulary?
A. They have another call that I call “churt,” which is a contact call. They’re basically telling one another, “I’m here; I’m checking in.” It’s the call that the parents will give when they’re approaching the nest to say, “I’m coming in with food.” So it’s like letting somebody know that you are in the area.
Q. Shall we hear that?
[Sound of cliff swallow saying “churt” contact call; at 6:55 in recording.]
Oh, very different. So that’s the “here I am” of the cliff swallow. What else does it say?
A. They’ve got another call that is really fascinating; we don’t know if any other swallows have this call or not. There is a call that they give only on cool, cloudy days…
A. …because on cool, cloudy days, it becomes difficult to be a cliff swallow, because all the flying insects stay down in the grass when it’s cool and rainy. So they have to search very hard for swarms of flying insects, which is their food.
If one of the cliff swallows from the colony gets lucky and finds a bunch of flying insects on a cool, cloudy day, they’ll give this special call that’s called the “squeal” call, and it means, “I’ve found food; come quick and get some before they all fly away.”
Q. [Laughter.] Let’s hear that one.
[Sound of cliff swallow saying squeak “I’ve found food” call; at 8:11 in recording.]
Oh my goodness, that is excited.
A. And that’s one where you would only hear it once, and not in a row like that, but that’s a very interesting kind of rattle-y squeak call that alerts all the other birds in the colony to come and take advantage of the meal while they can.
Q. So that’s part of the vocabulary of the cliff swallow. Who’s another good example of a bird that we might start to listen to more carefully? [Photo of male red-winged blackbird, above, from Wikimedia.]
A. One of my favorite birds to listen to and talk about is the red-winged blackbird, which is one of the most abundant birds in North America. It’s found almost everywhere; most people have them in their backyard of nearby.
The red-winged blackbirds are fun because both the male and the female have a song that’s different. Both the male and the female have a typical song that’s different. Let’s listen to the male song first, and then we can listen to the female song and see how they are different.
[Sound of red-winged blackbird’s typical male song; at 9:34 in recording.]
So that’s the male—and again, that’s looped, so we were hearing more than he’d do.
A. He’d put 30 seconds in between those. He says, “kong-ka-REE” is the male song.
And then the female has a different song.
[Sound of red-winged blackbird’s typical female song; at 10:00 in recording.]
Q. It is very different.
A. Yes. What the male and female will do a lot if they are a mated pair is they will duet, using those two songs. The male will start by singing “kong-ka-REE,” and halfway through his song his mate will chime in with her “tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-CHEER” song. So he’s start it and she’ll finish it, and they will overlap just for a second in the middle.
I have a recording of that as well.
[Sound of typical red-winged blackbirds’ male/female duet; at 10:39 in recording.]
Q. Of course I think that people think that just male birds sing, and you’re just bringing this up with male and female songs. But in many species females sing as well?
A. Yes, females sing in quite a few species. In some species they sing the same song as the male; in some species like the red-winged blackbird they have their own different song.
Q. Interesting. What’s next with Mr. Red-Winged Blackbird?
A. Well the songs we just heard are the most common kinds of songs, and that sends a particular kind of message. The male gets up on his cattail in the marsh, and he sings his typical song to say, “This is my territory.” And the female is sending the same message with her song: “This is my territory.”
The male will defend the territory against other males; the female will defend the territory against other females, because neither of them wants somebody coming in and stealing their mate.
When they duet like that—when they sing together at the same time—that’s their way of telling each other “I love you.”
A. That’s their pair-binding ritual, and at the same time, they’re also telling everybody else in the marsh that they are together. If you go out to the marsh, those two songs sound so different, and the male and the female are rarely sitting right next to each other—usually the male’s up high and the female is often down in the reeds.
Next time you’re out, listen, and then if halfway through that song you hear that “tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-CHEER” from somewhere else—it could be down out of sight—you’ll know his mate is actually answering him, and you are listening to a mated pair.
The male and the female both, they also have a second song type. Red-winged blackbirds are wonderfully complex; they have really a lot to say, a lot of words in their language. So the male has a different song that you don’t hear very often. It’s called his flight song, because he usually only gives it when he’s flying, and usually only give it when he’s flying out of his territory—when he’s leaving the territory temporarily. He’ll sing this song when he is on his was out.
Our best guess as to why he does that is that he is telling his mate, “Honey, I’ll be back in a bit.” He’s basically letting her know that basically she has to hold down the fort while he’s gone.
A. His flight song is actually much longer and more complex than his normal song.
Q. So let’s just hear this one once—the male flight song.
[Sound of red-winged blackbird male flight song; at 13:45 in recording.]
It is different.
A. That was just all one male flight song. You don’t hear that very often in the marsh; they don’t give it very often. But they do it once in awhile, if you’ll listen. Then the female has another song type as well, that she gives, and is more aggressive. The one we heard before is her courtship song, that she gives with her mate, and this is when she really wants to get someone out of her territory; a much more aggressive kind of song.
[Sound of red-winged blackbird female aggressive song; at 14:28 in recording.]
Q. Again, that’s looped—but boy, I don’t want to stay around her. [Laughter.]
A. You can hear it’s kind of an angrier sound.
Q. I’m going away! Definitely. It’s funny; I have a lot of house wrens, right by the house [laughter]. I feel like they are yelling at me all the time. They have a bawdy voice.
A. [Laughter.] They have a beautiful song and then they have some really, really harsh chatters when they get upset.
Q. Yes; it’s a little bird but it’s got a lot to say. [Laughter.]
I want to get some tips from you. With the book, as I said, at first I was like, “Ooh, I’m looking at these pictures, these spectrograms, and I’m not quite sure what I am doing and seeing.” I have gotten deeper and deeper into it, again using the audio files as well.
What I found was that early in the book, you really pared down what I should be thinking about. I’ve been listening to birds for like 35 years, but very amateurishly, and I never organized my thinking as sharply as you have enabled me to start to do.
You said that we should ask ourselves just two questions about the patterns of repetition and speed to at least start to zero in on who’s doing the singing. Explain.
A. In order to talk about bird sounds, and really understand what we are hearing, we need to have a shared vocabulary. So a really simple thing to listen for is first of all:
Are the notes in the bird song the same, or different? Is it the same not being repeated in that bird song, or is each note different from the last? That’s the first thing to ask.
The second thing to ask yourself is: Are those notes slow, or fast? The basic rule of thumb I use is, are they slow enough that you can count them, or are they too fast to count?
If you can answer those two questions, which anybody should be able to answer, you can tell what kind of basic category of sound you are listening to. [More on the four basic patterns of repetition and speed, on Nathan’s Earbirding website.]
So if you are hearing the same not over and over again, repeated, and it’s slow enough to count, we’re going to call that a series. But if you hear the same note repeated but it’s to fast to count—they all kind of run together into one sound—we call that a trill.
Q. So I’m thinking—and tell me if I am even close—that a series is a tufted titmouse, maybe, and a trill is a chipping sparrow [above, photo from Wikimedia].
Q. I don’t know what birds we are going to hear, but should we hear a single example?
A. I think we’re going to hear those two birds.
Q. You’re kidding me. Wow, boy, do I have ESP. [Laughter.]
A. Those are I think my examples.
Q. They’re two of my mainstay birds; I have a lot of both in the garden, so that’s why I say them. So let’s hear one instance of the series.
[Sound of tufted titmouse’s series; at 17:53 in recording.]
A. There’s your titmouse.
Q. So it’s slow enough to count, but the same note being repeated—so that’s a series. Let’s hear a trill.
[Sound of chipping sparrow’s trill; at 18:05 in recording. Spectrogram depiction below.]
My little friends. [Laughter.]
A. And that’s the chipping sparrow. You think of it kind of just as a single trill, but if you listen to it, it’s the same note but it’s just being repeated really, really fast so that it all just runs together into one sound.
If the notes are different, we’ll have two different words for that. If the notes are different and they’re slow, so that you can hear each one clearly and count them, that’s what we call a phrase. And then if the notes are different and they are so fast that they all run together and you can’t figure out how many notes you’re hearing, we call that a warble.
Q. So shall we hear a phrase?
[Sound of phrase; at 18:54 in recording.]
A. That’s an Eastern meadowlark singing. [Spectrogram depiction above right.]
Q. Ah, that’s not somebody who lives with me; I knew that. I don’t know the sound, and didn’t know what it was. So it’s different notes…
A. Yes, about five or six notes there, and each one is a little different, but you can pretty easily tell that there are only a few, and you can count them. Whereas if you hear a whole bunch of different notes all jumbled together, that’s what we call a warble. I believe the example for this is a house finch. [Photo from Wikimedia.]
[Sound of house finch’s warble; at 19:37 in recording.]
Q. [Laughter.] A warble, but not from a warbler, but from a house finch.
A. Actually warblers don’t generally warble.
Q. Oh, dear, now I’m confused. [Laughter.] So by just doing those two things, asking those two questions and understanding those two subdivisions within each one—it really right away makes it clearer. And then if you have the book in your hand, the book has sort of these indexes and so forth that help you look at groups of birds that it might be. Is that the idea?
A. Yes, so every sound in the book is listed in the index, in a group of all the sounds that are similar to it. You can look up any sound you want. If you hear something that sounds kind of like a titmouse, and you’re not sure what else it might be, then you can go look up titmouse, and the titmouse song, and it will give you a list of all the other birds that sound similar. Then you can go to the website, and instead of having to navigate through 5,000 sound files, you can narrow it down to the ones it’s likely to be.
Q. Since I’m getting all this advice, where else besides PetersonBirdSounds dot com, and the book, what other things online shall we use? I’ve seen you refer to Xeno-canto dot org, where a lot of people interested in bird sounds share things.
A. Xeno-canto dot org is a place where people can upload bird songs that they have recorded. Right now I think they have something like 9,700 species represented—it’s something like over 95 percent of all the birds in the world are on Xeno-canto right now. You can just type in a bird, and listen to it—hear all the recordings that anybody has uploaded from all over the world.
The eBird dot org website actually gives you similar functionality. If you go to eBird dot org/media, you can type in any bird sound. And there you get not just any bird sound but also the photos that people have uploaded themselves from all around the world.
Q. Your website is earbirding dot com, correct?
Q. As I said, I’m just getting deeper and deeper into the book. Give me another year [laughter], as I think they said in a Robert Heinlein science fiction book, to “grok it,” to really get it a little better. It’s a whole other language for me.
enter to win ‘peterson field guide to bird sounds’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (keep scrolling below the last reader comment):
How are your “earbirding” efforts going? Are there birds in your garden whose voices you recognize, or especially love? I am surrounded by a din of catbirds, house finches and tufted titmice who never stop from dawn to dusk, but really look forward most of all to the eerie voices of the thrushes: the veery and the wood thrush, especially.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close on Tuesday night at midnight, June 27, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 19, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(All spectrograms from Nathan Pieplow; bird photos from Wikimedia as credited. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links may yield a small commission.)