Text and Photos by Alexandria Simpson
One of my favorite aspects of birding is learning birdsongs. When I began birding, I focused on identifying birds by sight; after all, field guides are full of pictures, aren’t they? As my skills developed, I learned a few songs of the birds in my area like Great Kiskadee and Killdeer.
For my thirteenth birthday, I received two Peterson birdsong CDs: Birding by Ear: Eastern and Central North America and A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America. The list of birds I could identify by ear grew. At the 2009 Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest I attended a lecture by Donald Kroodsma, which piqued my curiosity in birdsong. I also met Jessie Barry, who told me about her work at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds. She gave me a CD with the bird songs and calls of southern Texas. I then received Thayer’s birding software for Christmas 2009, which I have found extremely useful for researching bird songs and calls.*
During the past few months, I have been birding by ear. Sometimes I go out just to listen for calling and singing birds. Some of the identifications I have made recently could not have been made without hearing the bird call. Of these, the most notable was a yellowlegs wading near the shore of the pond on my property. I had only my camera and was unable to get close to it. The yellow legs were obvious, even from a distance, and the way it was bobbing was enough to suggest yellowlegs. The bird flew and gave a few calls I did not recognize. When I got back to the house, I headed straight to the computer to look up both species of yellowlegs using the Thayer’s software. The calls I heard in the field matched Greater Yellowlegs, a whistled deet-deet-deet. Without hearing this distinctive call, I would have been unable to identify the species and would have missed adding a new yard bird to my list.
Not long ago, I had an interesting interaction with a Great Horned Owl. I cupped my hands over my mouth and began hooting “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoooo, hooooo.” In a few minutes its response came, deeper than my voice. Because of the low-pitched voice, I think it was a male. He varied his call once to a slow, drawn-out two-syllable “hooo hoooo” but then resumed the five-syllable version. We exchanged hoots until I got too cold and went inside.
My favorite song is that of the Bewick’s Wren. This species was the first bird I was able to identify solely by ear. I did not actually see it until weeks later. One April morning, I was sitting on what I call my “thinking rock” when I heard zoo, zoo zoo, I’m going there-ere-ere-ere-ere. I immediately identified it as a wren, probably a Bewick’s Wren. Once I had a chance, I listened to the Bewick’s on Thayer’s. I was correct! However, the Thayer’s recording was faster-paced than my bird’s. This bothered me at first, but I remembered that bird songs vary amongst individuals and by geographic location.
After three weeks of just hearing the wren, I finally saw it perched on a chair back. I watched it dance around until it flew away. Many mornings in the spring and early summer, it would perch on top of the electrical pole and sing its heart out. Because of this memory, I feel a special connection to the Bewick’s Wren every time I hear its song.
All of these experiences and resources have helped me immensely with my listening skills, Now I base many of my identifications on birdsong. I often find myself unconsciously identifying bird songs and calls. For me, listening to birds sing helps me appreciate the beautiful world I live in.
And now a question for all of you: What is your favorite aspect of birding (photography, drawing, studying molt or birdsong, taking field notes)?
*What is the difference between songs and calls? According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, calls are “short, stereotyped vocalizations that are innate…”, while songs are typically longer, more complex, and are often learned. Almost all bird species have calls and many, mostly Passerines, also have songs.
Alexandria Simpson is fourteen years old and lives in Santa Anna, Texas. She won second place in writing and third place in photography in the 2009 ABA Young Birder of the Year Contest. When she’s not birding or writing, she is usually reading something bird-related or wrestling with a tough identification. She is homeschooled and her curriculum includes studying birds. She hopes to be an ornithologist and to someday be able to read scientific papers without falling asleep.