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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

    Latest posts by Blake Mathys (see all)

    • http://www.larkwire.com Phil Mitchell

      Why is sound so hard? is one of my favorite questions. Obviously there are multiple factors at work, including native ability and childhood exposure. But the most interesting factors are the ones we can control, and here there’s a fascinating story to tell.

      Cognitive psychologists could take you into the lab and train you up on nearly any skill, and do so very efficiently. They would do this by carefully controlling three things: 1) the timing of practice; 2) the structure of practice (roughly, from easy to hard); 3) the type of practice (basically, quizzing rather than sheer repetition).

      Control these three factors and sound will not be hard.

      So why is sound hard outside the lab? Because for most of us, the natural pattern of our exposure to bird sounds violates all three of these critical factors. Timing is too spaced out. Difficulty is random, not controlled. And when we do control timing and difficulty (using CDs), most of us just listen on repeat rather than test ourselves. The very gifted among us learn despite these hurdles; for the rest of us, it’s too hard!

      Kudos to you for mentioning “song-learning software,” but don’t underestimate how greatly it can change the whole game. Well-designed software controls all three of these critical factors. Of course, it doesn’t work overnight, but it can make what seemed to be an impossible task efficient and even fun.

      Full disclosure: I am the founder and designer of the Larkwire birdsong-learning software: http://www.larkwire.com

    • http://nwbackyardbirder.blogspot.com/ Greg Gillson

      Learning bird sounds can be done. It’s only “hard” because we haven’t been trained how to do it.

      First is to listen. People don’t listen to nature, and drown themselves in man-made noise. See Don Freiday’s ABA blog article Hear the motorcycle.

      Like many people, I find listening to tapes of bird songs over and over unproductive.

      One time-tested way to learn bird songs and calls is to write down what you hear. One bird at a time. Even if you don’t see and identify the bird, you build the practice of writing it down. You learn the common sounds around you this way.

      There are no modern books explaining the technique that I know about. (Is there anything like A.A. Saunders’ 1951 book A Guide to Bird Songs on the market today?) But it really comes down to keeping a field journal, and writing down what you hear, refining it every time you hear it again. The act of listening and trying to determine timing, pitch, and quality, as well as phonetic rendering (captures pattern and vowel sounds), and writing it down will help you learn.

      What, you don’t keep a field journal? More than likely, then, you don’t do well at identifying birds by ear. Don’t want to keep a field journal? Frankly, then, you don’t really want to learn bird songs and calls.

    • Ted Floyd

      Great post. And an important, and vexing, question.

      I have one idea to share. I find that it’s highly beneficial to try to learn songs by watching birds sing. Seems kinda trivial, but I find that a lot of us don’t do that. Instead, we approach the learning of birdsong as if birdsong were somehow disembodied from the bird–an unseen songster in the woods, a “sonogram” in the Golden Guide, downloads from xeno-canto, etc.

      There’s something salutarily synesthetic about hearing and seeing a bird at the same time. So often, when I hear a bird, the occipital lobe in my visual cortex is triggered–but only if I’ve had the experience of seeing the species sing.

      If you don’t have a good “aural memory,” as they say, then simply bypass the problem: Watch the bird sing; the next time you have a heard-only encounter, you’ll “see” the bird in your mind’s eye.

      Well, it works for me.

      My explanation may be crazy, but, again, it works. Disciplining myself to watch birds vocalize helps me learn birdsong.

    • Ted Floyd

      One quibble, by the way:

      “seabirds being an obvious exception”

      I think seabird vocalizations are awesome! (Y’know, to the extent that I get to hear them at all; Colorado is great, but not for learning shearwater songs…)

      Here’s an awesome resource for appreciating seabird vocalizations:

      http://soundapproach.co.uk/books/petrels-night-day

      Here’s a review, from Birding magazine, of that resource:

      http://www.scillypelagics.com/Petrels_Night_and_Day_review.pdf

      As the reviewer, Nathan Pieplow, writes:

      The female Cory’s Shearwater (p. 56) thus sounds “like a chain smoker with a terrible hangover,” and Yelkouan Shearwaters (p. 141) sound “for all the world, like great bellows stoking the fires of hell.” A little extreme? Well, listen to the CDs and see if you could describe them better.

      Good stuff!

    • http://profile.typepad.com/blakemathys Blake Mathys

      Ahh, yes. You make a good point, and I realize I was a bit hasty here. Seabirds of course have interesting and diagnostic sounds (I always enjoy playing Atlantic Puffin sounds for non-birders). My point, I suppose, is that we rarely use sound for seabird identification, except near nesting sites. The majority of my seabird encounters, and I think this probably holds true for most ABA-area birders, have been visual observations from a coastline, lake shore, or pelagic boating trip. To quote David Allen Sibley: “Generally silent at sea”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Birding.Aboard Diana Doyle

      I agree with Ted’s comment—there is something about seeing the bird sing. But that implicitly means spending time listening to the surroundings, picking out an “interesting” song, and then slowing down to wait until the songster shows itself—and shows itself singing. But by this slowed-down process, the song becomes part of the entire field experience gestalt.

    • Mike Fialkovich

      I did the same thing when learning bird songs many years ago. The method worked very well for me with calls as well. I remember hearing my first Wood Thrush alarm call in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. I didn’t know what it was so I set off to find the bird visually and it all came together.

    • http://www.jvanderw.nl John van der Woude

      Actually, this was the way I, as a youngster, learned birds anyway. I grew up in a forested region (in Holland), and got most of my new lifers just because I endlessly kept searching when I heard an unfamiliar bird sound, until I saw the bird. And when the bird was not new for me, it just meant I better learned the song or call of that species. Or learned different calls of the same species.

      As so often said, learning it at a young age will be important, and probably having a bit musical feeling helps a lot.

    • http://profile.typepad.com/blakemathys Blake Mathys

      I find these suggestions of ‘looking at the bird while it’s singing’ interesting, because I have heard this before from others. I’ve certainly try it…but it doesn’t seem to make much difference for me. I have never tried taking field notes of bird song, as Greg Gillson suggested, but I’m not sure what I would write down. When I listen to music, I never have any idea what instrument is being played, and I think I have a similar problem with bird sounds. I hear the sound, but my mind doesn’t separate out the parts and pieces. I’m going to try to take field notes over the next couple of weeks, and see if I can make some progress. My next blog post will contain the results.

    • http://www.larkwire.com Phil Mitchell

      Blake, we’d be happy to provide you (or any ABA blogger) with a copy of Larkwire to try as well. You can reach me at earth@larkwire.com. Good luck with your experiments!

    • http://profile.typepad.com/archdeacon Thomas Archdeacon

      I can attest to Blake’s musical abilities, having tracked down that Warbling Vireo so many years ago (and also lived with Blake). For me, tracking down a singing bird works really well, especially if it has a distinctive song. I apparently never knew what a Bewick’s Wren song sounded like until recently, I wrote it off as some sort of sparrow. By chance, one sang near me and was easily visible, after that I realized I had been hearing them all over. It’s interesting that some things I always remember (alarm note of Summer Tanager), and some things I have to re-learn every spring.

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