Tue. May. 1, 2018

– by Joanna Reuter

Spring migration is a great season to brush up on bird song as a tool for identification, but vocalizations are fascinating for more than just ID. Scientific study of bird vocalizations is leading to better understanding of bird behavior and evolution. Also, paying attention to bird sounds in the back yard can lead to interesting observations of behavior. Eric & I have another reason to delve into available bird song resources this year: We will be presenting an “Introduction to Bird Song” program on behalf of CAS at the library on July 12. Below, I’ve compiled a listing of resources that I’ve become aware of over the years; if you have other favorite bird song resources, please feel free to share them with us.

  • The All About Birds website is the online source for bird vocalizations that I’ve been using the longest. It has a nice collection of songs and calls (though without sonagrams).
  • Smartphone owners seem to always have bird song at their fingertips with apps such as the free Audubon Bird Guide App. Disclaimer: I haven’t used this or any other bird ID app, seeing as my phone is so dumb it still has a cord.
  • Donald Kroodsma’s book, The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong is the resource that first convinced me, many years ago, of the value of sonagrams. Also known as sonograms or spectrograms, these are visual representations of bird vocalizations that are in some ways analogous to a musical score. With a little practice, the visual cues of the sonagram can be very helpful when it comes to learning to hear subtleties of vocalizations. The book also convinced me that there was more to listening than simple identification. The American Robin, for example, has a great deal of complexity and subtlety that is well worth taking the time to appreciate despite the bird’s ubiquity. Though there’s much that science doesn’t understand about robin song, Kroodsma covers a lot of ground about song mysteries that science has teased out. This book is available at the Daniel Boone Regional Library; Kroodsma’s website also has a nice section on how to read sonagrams.
  • The Warbler Guide is a book that focuses on identification of warblers by both sight and sound. After checking it out of the library (twice), I decided I needed to buy a copy because of the excellent treatment of warbler song. Prior to this book, and on the basis of the songs I heard at All About Birds, I had a mental framework of groups of warblers that were “worth looking at” but that I thought I had no hope of identifying to species except by sight. This book pointed out quite a number of clues to teasing out differences that I had overlooked. I especially love the page layouts of sonagrams; these highlight aspects of songs that differentiate them from other similar singers. While I may never master all warbler songs, I really value this resource for how it has helped me maximize my ability to see my favorite birds. For example, I’ll give the book credit for helping me get an especially memorable sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler last spring, as I had the pleasure of watching as it bathe in our stream. Audio files (compatible with iTunes) for each sonagram in the book are available for purchase (independent of the book). Or there’s an app for The Warbler Guide.
  • Moving beyond just warblers, Nathan Pieplow’s 2017 book, the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America provides sonagram coverage for everything from the chattiest of birds to the infrequently heard Turkey Vulture. This book is packed with information: an intro section on how to read sonagrams, an index for looking up unknown vocalizations based on the pattern of a sound you’ve heard, and the core of the book with multiple types of vocalizations for most species. The guide’s recordings (with sonagrams) are available online for free, and these are a really amazing resource.
  • Nathan Pieplow, author of the previous resource, also presented an excellent webinar at the Cornell Lab with some really fascinating insights on the vocalizations of Red-winged Blackbirds and more. Here’s an inspiring quote from the presentation: “One of the reasons I got into bird sounds is because with bird sounds we are so much closer to the frontier of bird knowledge than we are when we just look at them. It is so much easier to go out in your backyard and record a song that’s never been recorded before than it is to go out in your backyard and take a photograph that’s never been photographed before of a bird.”
  • This leads into the next resource, the Macaulay Library, a collection that includes audio recordings (with sonagrams) of birds and other natural sounds. This has a large and growing collection of recordings from diverse geographic locations that can be filtered by species, location, date, vocalization type, and other criteria. Recording quality is more variable than some of the other resources, but the diversity is unmatched. You can contribute recordings via eBird (instructions here); here are tips for making recordings with smartphones. For those serious about picking up the recording hobby, better equipment can lead to better results, and advice can be found from a variety of sources including Audubon and the American Birding Association. I have yet to record bird song, but perhaps a CAS member with recording experience would want to lead a field trip/recording demo event?

Finally, to further emphasize how much remains to be learned about the birds around us, there is now a citizen science project seeking observations about and recordings of female bird song. They are seeking field notes and recordings  of female bird song for a large number of species. Many of these are tropical, but quite a few live or spend time in Missouri, including Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Grey Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, American Goldfinch, White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Meadowlark, and Wood Thrush; a complete list is available. Recordings representing “matched samples of males and females from the same geographic location and the same time of year are immensely valuable.” Simply becoming more aware of female bird song can enhance the birding experience. For example, Eric & I recently used sonagrams to figure out that an odd (to us) song was probably a female House Wren singing a female-specific pattern distinct from the more common male song. There are a lot of interesting things to be learned about and from females if we pay them due attention!