American Birding Podcast



Audio Field Marks at Earbirding

Nathan Pieplow, the blogger and bird vocalization guru at the most excellent, expands on a really great question regarding how we describe what we hear versus how we describe what we see.  Why is it that so many skilled birders can go into such detail when discussing the visual appearance of birds, but relate their vocalizations so simply and crudely?

Nathan has advocated this approach before, even in the pages of Birding magazine (.pdf), but here he offers an acronymic solution (and who doesn’t love acronyms?) based on six tips for thinking about bird vocalizations.

  1. If you can, make an audio recording. Use your cell phone.  Use your camera on the video setting.  Use a cheap voice recorder.  Use your laptop.  Use any device that can possibly record sound.  If you don’t have one, that’s OK — but if you have any audio recording capability whatsoever, don’t proceed to Step 2 until you’ve done Step 1!
  2. Count the notes. (If they are too fast or too many to count, make a note of that.)
  3. Figure out which notes are repeated, if any. (Remember: trills are made of notes that are repeated, too fast to count.)
  4. Write down nonsense words that sound like what the bird is saying (that is, onomatopoeia). Try not to use real words or phrases, as you’re likely to get closer to the original sound if you let yourself break the rules of English.  Spend some time on this, and try to get the transcription as close to the original as possible.
  5. Compare the sound you’re hearing to similar sounds. These could be bird sounds or non-bird sounds — for example, “like a robin song, but without any pauses”; “like the squeak of a shoe on a gym floor”; “like an electronic video game.”  Spend some time on this also — come up with multiple comparisons if at all possible.
  6. Sketch the sound. If the pitch of the sound goes up, draw a line that goes up.  If it then goes down, draw a line that goes down.  You get the idea.  Put each note on the page, the way it sounds to your ear.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and refreshing aspects of this approach is the lack of confusing jargon or established techniques.  It’s wide open, requiring only a little time and some creativity.  In short, it’s fun! There’s more at Nathan’s blog, which is generally fascinating anyway, and I recommend checking it out.