THE DAWN CHORUS is in full voice, but do you know which birds are even singing? In a quest to learn to bird by ear—identifying birds by their song, rather than sight—I’m working on some of the most haunting, distinctive sounds, the ones emanating from various thrush family members in the woods around me. Listen to them, and learn more about birding by ear, with help from my friends at the BirdNote public-radio program. (That’s a wood thrush, above.)
why do birds all sound different?
FIRST: the “why” question: Why are birds’ sounds so different, species to species? I asked Ellen Blackstone, our tour guide in the continuing series with BirdNote (browse all past installments).
As always, the answer is evolution: Songs evolved to match the bird’s habitat, she explained (learn more in this BirdNote segment). Each species adapted over time to succeed in communicating, despite the acoustical obstacles of its environment. Because high-pitched sounds have shorter wavelengths, they are more easily stopped by solid objects, and better sung from tree-tops. Explosive, low-pitched songs bounce better past solid obstacles.
The canyon wren’s song, for example–a series of distinct, long, higher-pitched notes–has ideal acoustics for bouncing off the tall rock faces and boulders of its habitat. Its cousin the marsh wren sings in dense stands of cattails, often from a low perch. That bird’s rapid, choppy, lower-pitched notes carry effectively there; the canyon’s wren’s style of singing would not, um, fly there. Listen to them both.
listening to thrushes
THOUGH they are technically thrushes, the Eastern bluebird and American robin have voices that are familiar to me, and I regularly see each bird in the garden, often year-round. But knowing their songs—the “cheery” sound the robin makes, or the bluebird’s burbling, as BirdNote calls it—didn’t help me much in identifying the other local thrushes, including the veery, wood thrush and hermit thrush.
Farther north and in some Western states, a Swainson’s thrush song might also be one I’d be trying to identify. The Swainson’s spirals upward, while the veery’s tends downward in pitch. The hermit thrush sings ethereal, paired phrases, long flute-like notes backed by complex, reedy phrases, says BirdNote. (Left to right: Veery and Swainson’s thrush, below.)
Cornell describes the wood thrush’s song as ee-oh-lay; listen.
It’s different from the upward-spiraling Swainson’s, or the veery’s (often called “reedy,” and “ethereal,” with a cascading “veer” sound) and the hermit thrush (described as “haunting”): Listen to these three brown thrushes.
Oh, and then there is the thrush-lookalike ovenbird and Louisiana water thrush (both of which live in my area). But wait: Appearance and the one common name notwithstanding, those two aren’t thrushes at all, but warblers—and I haven’t dared try to learn to ID warblers by their voices yet.
What bird voices can you identify? Learned any new ones this year?
more on birding by ear
- how birds make sound
- how birders describe bird sounds: part 1 and a followup lesson
- online tools from cornell lab of ornithology
- bird songs and calls–and the difference
how to get birdnote
Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.
The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!
(All photos courtesy of BirdNote, and copyright Joanne Kamo; used with permission.)