OK, what bird makes this call: honk, honk, tweeeeet, twitter twitter, buzzzzzz. Don’t know? That’s OK, neither do I. But I get questions like this on a regular basis from folks who want to know what bird is singing or calling in their backyard. Bird songs and calls may sound the same to different people and the descriptions might come out quite differently. Try it. Describe the sound of an American Robin, say it and then write it out. Then as a friend to do the same. Very different, I expect. Some people describe it as cheerup, cheerily, cheerily“. How would you describe it?
When I get only written descriptions of a bird sound, I am often stumped; just describing the song in writing is usually not sufficient. If the person describing the sound says that the bird is singing from a rooftop, repeats the same sound every five seconds, flies in circles while singing, or has spots on its chest, those can be helpful clues.
Some birds have classic sounds like Carolina Wrens and Yellowthroats. A mnemonic for the Yellowthroat warbler is wit-chi-tah, wit-chi-tah, wit-chi-tah, and the wren’s is tea-kett-le, tea-kett-le, tea-kett-le. The Eastern Towhee goes drink-your-tee. And the Red-winged Blackbird goes ohhh- gurgleee. I love the phrase Quick, three beers that the Olive-sided Flycatcher says. And how about the Song Sparrow’s Maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, kettle, kettle? And perhaps my favorite from the White-eyed Vireo, Quick, Pick up the Beer Check.
Some people send me a sound file of a bird song or call. That’s helpful, but I still get stumped on occasion. It helps to know where – what part of the world- and when the sound was recorded. I can rule out a lot of birds based on the geographic location and time of year. Adding the time of day helps and of course, any physical description at all. If you describe a bird that sits on top of a flagpole and constantly sings a bunch of different songs, each repeated twice, I can be pretty sure you are depicting a Northern Mockingbird.
There are other ways to identify birds by their songs. The Smithsonian Zoo has a song identification guide and there are a number of apps you can get on your mobile phone which I blogged about earlier. Some field guides have sound spectrographs or sonographs. I find them pretty handy; Audubon has an explanation about interpreting them which I find useful.
Some people think they can imitate bird songs, like the guy who used to regularly appear on the old Johnny Carson show. When I taught Ornithology, I used a sonograph to produce a sonogram of an actual bird song. Then I would ask a couple of students to imitate that bird song. Occasionally a student would do a pretty good job of it, at least to our human ears. But when I made a sonogram of the human imitation, it was nothing like the bird song. Our ears are just not as good as those of birds’.
The other day I received another one of those requests to identify a bird song from a written description. Hard enough, but this request was from the island of Cyprus. Talk about hard………