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Will Birders Ever Learn to “See” Birdsong?

A review by Marky Mutchler

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America, by Nathan Pieplow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

593 pages, $28—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14630

Songs and calls are very important in bird identification, in many cases as useful as the classic visual field marks, but they are often ignored. Nathan Pieplow’s Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America tackles this underused aspect of birding more thoroughly than anyone ever before.

The stunning and colorful cover makes a good first impression. In spite of the complexities of the subject, Bird Sounds is only a tad larger than the small, regional Sibley guides, and one could easily carry it in the field. Overall, the look and feel are similar to the other guides in the Peterson series.

This eastern volume–to be followed, I hope, by its western complement–comprises three main sections: an introduction, the species accounts, and a visual bird sound index. There is also a website, petersonbirdsounds.com, that lets the user hear a specific sound while studying its visual representation—but more on that later.

Introductions tend to be skimmed or completely ignored. It is especially important to take the time to read this one, though. The topic of visualizing sound is foreign to most of us, and there is plenty of new and intriguing information in the 33 pages of introductory material. The reader learns about the several types of sound, how birds create sound, a standard terminology for bird sound, and most importantly, how to read spectrograms. Spectrograms, or sonograms, are a visual graphing of sound, representing frequency on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. Pieplow tackles the learning curve by describing five basic pitch patterns, methods for reading spectrograms like music, and repetition of patterns among other commonly encountered bird sounds. I am relatively well versed in working with spectrograms, but I still found myself learning new things, such as polyphonic sounds and the “stacking” of “partials” (analogous to overtones in human music) to create different sound qualities. The introduction may just be my favorite part of the guide.

Next are the species accounts, making up most of the book. They are laid out similarly to the accounts in traditional field guides, with a lovely painting (most from other Peterson guides) and an inch-square range map showing state and province boundaries. A very brief text summarizes visual field marks and characteristic behaviors.

Needless to say, the accounts’ main focus is on the several spectrograms devoted to each species. Each spectrogram is labeled, sometimes as a “call” or “song,” but more often descriptively, as a “pip,” a “short twitter,” a “chuckle,” a “ka-lip series,” and so on. The accounts indicate the circumstances and times of year when each sound can be heard, and also point out variation within a species, to cover such special matters as the six Red Crossbill call types found in the East. (Pieplow mentions six, but actually treats only Types One through Four and Type Ten; I assume that the sixth, missing type is Type Five, a rare stray to New York.)

The last section includes a traditional alphabetical index, but it also provides something not found in other field guides. The very last page and the back pastedown are a quick, neatly color-coded key to bird sounds, breaking them into “single notes,” “single notes repeated,” “phrases of 2-3 syllables,” and so on, all of them directing the user to a visual index of more than 80 pages. That visual index groups the species that produce a given sound type, encouraging the user to consider and compare species that sound similar. By narrowing the field of possible identifications, this index helps the user focus on the species most likely behind a mystery sound and on vocal, visual, behavioral, and habitat clues to distinguish among them. If you hear what Pieplow diagnoses as a “Kweeah, like Kwirr, but higher and finer, often harsher; lower and finer than Grate,” you do not need to flip through the entire guide, but can concentrate instead on the two species the index lists as giving calls that fit that description—the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Horned Grebe. It shouldn’t be hard from there.

The accompanying website, petersonbirdsounds.com, is easy to use. Typing a species name into the search bar brings up a selection of sound files; each sound file also has a live view of the spectrogram produced from it. The recordings that were used to produce the guide’s spectrograms are marked with a small book icon. Each recording is labeled with descriptors (such as “psit”) that correlate directly to the terms used in the index and in the species accounts. The website includes additional samples, not in the printed guide, of the call or song of many species to provide examples of individual variation. Using the website with the book makes for a seamless progression from hearing sound to reading sound.

With all the high praise come a couple of criticisms, though there do not appear to be any major flaws. Obviously, not every single call and song of every species in eastern North America can be described and depicted here, but I would have liked to see more in-depth treatment of nocturnal flight calls, the short calls given by migrating birds as they fly over during the night hours. Those vocalizations in warblers and sparrows are addressed briefly here, but the identification of flight calls often requires closer attention and more detailed analysis. Of course, a whole book could be written on nocturnal flight calls, and more comprehensive coverage might not be necessary or interesting for the more general audience targeted by this guide. No single book can, or probably should, do everything.

My other concern is the practical challenge in the field of taking the step between hearing a sound and seeing it in the book. This guide contains a bounty of information, but its effectiveness as a guide for the field requires some time and effort on the user’s part. No matter how closely we listen and how critically we compare, our minds cannot produce a perfect spectrogram to match exactly the one on the page. Instead, it takes a recording device and a computer program to create an accurate spectrogram.

The bulk of the guide consists of the species accounts, but to effectively use them in the field as someone new to birding by ear, the Quick Index in the back may be your best friend. The understanding of “seeing sound” is central to birding by ear. With the ability to at least roughly picture, say, the nasal sound of some migrant rasping above in the tree tops, a beginner can flip to the Quick Index and find that nasal sounds are created by a stacking of partials, with the higher frequencies relatively strongly pronounced. With a combination of descriptions, habitat, and behavior, the identification can be reasonably assumed to be something like a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

The vocalizations of some birds are so similar that a recording is necessary for diagnosis, as in identifying some nocturnal flight calls and distinguishing certain subspecies. Especially for users who are new to spectrograms, this guide might be best after the fact, as an excellent aid to “record-now-identify-later” study. With dedicated use, picturing sounds as you hear them becomes easier, and the book becomes more and more helpful in the field.

I cannot write about this guide without mentioning the 1966 Birds of North America, better known as the “Golden Guide.” More than half a century ago, Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert Zim attempted something similar to what Pieplow has undertaken here. The inclusion of a spectrogram of a common song or call next to many species accounts was a breakthrough in bird identification, but this revolutionary feature went, frankly, unappreciated. Over the years, I have met very few birders who praise the Golden Guide specifically for its inclusion of spectrograms.

Fifty years later, this new Peterson guide, a second, more ambitious and more sophisticated pioneer in the world of sound, may finally lead more and more birders to take full advantage of the spectrogram as an identification tool. Those of us who use Xeno-Canto have already grown accustomed to these visual aids, and thanks to the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library, eBird users can now view and hear their own recorded sounds on their checklists. The increasing popularity of birding apps for smartphones has also encouraged the increased use of sound in birding.

Nathan Pieplow’s user-friendly book effectively attacks a complex topic with simple explanations in a beautifully designed guide. The next time you hear an unfamiliar “pwik” or “zeep” as something flies over, this book might just help you identify a bird you would never have noticed.

High school senior Marky Mutchler is an ornithologist with expertise in flight calls, subspecies, and conservation. Mutchler has been the recipient of various birding and ornithology awards, and she was the 2015 ABA Young Birder of the Year. Her work has appeared in art galleries, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, and in several magazines.   
Recommended citation:

Mutchler, M. 2017. A Sophisticated Pioneer in the World of Sound [a review of Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America, by Nathan Pieplow]. Birding 49: 131-132.

 

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • thebirdsknow

    Wow! This is an intelligent, well- written review that answered every question I had about this guide plus provided details I didn’t even think about. I’m not big on book reviews but this one nailed it. Then I get to the bottom and found out it was authored by a high school senior. I’m am in shock and awed by the talent of this young lady. Great job Ms. Mutchler!

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