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Why Is Sound So Hard?

One of the skills most birders use is the ability to recognize birds by the sounds they make. In most bird groups (seabirds being an obvious exception), each species (and sometimes subspecies or regional variations or even individuals) can be recognized by the sounds that it makes. If you've spent much time around serious birders, you've probably heard names mentioned, people who are extraordinarily good at recognizing the sounds birds make. If you've ever spent a fall migration morning on top of Cape May's Higbee Dike, you have probably witnessed some of these amazing events of bird ID, as experienced birders are able to pick out a flight call to identify a bird that most people didn't even realize was around. I used to work with someone who could identify birds in her sleep…she would use certain species as an alarm clock to know when to wake up in the morning. Let me make it clear right now, I am not one of those people.

NOCA1propI find identifying birds by sound to be extremely difficult. I don't know why, maybe it is because I am more of a visual learner. Regardless of the reason, keeping a bird song in my head is often almost impossible. It was probably after about 5 years of birding that I started being able to recognize anything other than the most common bird songs. Northern Cardinals were my default answer: no matter which species was singing, there was about a 75% chance that I would think it was a cardinal. There were times that I felt like I was doing better, but then I would hear a Carolina Wren and say to myself "Oh, a cardinal." That happened often enough that I knew not to trust my sound IDs, that they were always suspect. I'm starting to get better now (after about 12 years of pretty serious birding, including field work on birds in multiple states and countries), but it still falls apart sometimes. I'll be happily birding along, and then I'll hear a song. I'll recognize it, but not quite know to whom it belongs. In fact, it happened this morning. As background, about 10 years ago my friend Tom and I were birding in Ohio near Lake Erie. We were both still learning at the time, and there was a bird sitting up in a tree singing. It just kept singing, over and over again. We were having a tough time getting a look at it, and listened to the song, without knowing its identity, for nearly half an hour. It finally moved enough for us to get a good look at it, and we realized it was a Warbling Vireo. As we walked away, Tom said "Well, at least we'll never forget that song." I had no recollection of the song. This morning, I was tracking down migrants at one of my usual birding spots. There was a song I kept hearing, a real sing-songy song, repeated many times. I looked and followed and looked and finally got my binocular on it. Warbling Vireo. After all of these years, a relatively common bird with a distinct song continues to confuse me.

The reason I've mentioned these things is to encourage those birders who have a tough time with bird song. It is not easy for everyone, and most of us will never be as good as the experts. However, the more you work at it (spending time in the field listening, reviewing CDs, or perhaps using some of the new song-teaching software), the better you'll be. Don't expect to recognize every bird song every time, and try not to be frustrated when you get one wrong. There are a lot of us who have troubles. Stick with it, it will get better.

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Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers in 2010, studying evolution of birds introduced to islands. His field work was in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Trinidad, and was complemented by museum research. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows in Everglades National Park, as a hawk counter in Washington State, on the Farallon Islands studying Northern Elephant Seals for PRBO Conservation Science, and sampling fish for the Ohio EPA. Blake and his wife Dimitria recently moved to Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. Aside from birds, he maintains a fascination with salamanders, mammals, and anything else with a backbone.
Blake Mathys

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