OK, what bird makes this call: honk, honk, tweeeeet, twitter twitter, buzzzzzz. Don’t know? That’s OK, neither do I. But I get questions like this on a regular basis from folks who want to know what bird they heard. Bird songs and calls may sound the same to different people but the descriptions might come out quite differently. Some people describe the American Robin song as “cheerup, cheerily, cheerily“. How would you describe it in words? Then have a friend to do the same. The answers will be very different, I expect.
When I get only written descriptions of a bird sound, I am often stumped. (The coo-COO-cook sound of the Eurasian Collared Dove, however, does lend itself to a decent description.)
Some birds have classic sounds like Carolina Wrens and Yellowthroats. A mnemonic for the Yellowthroat is wit-chi-tah, wit-chi-tah, wit-chi-tah, and the wren’s is tea-kett-le, tea-kett-le, tea-kett-le. The Eastern Towhee goes drink-your-tee. And the Red-winged Blackbird goes ohhh- gurgleee. The Olive-sided Flycatcher says Quick, three beers. And how about the Song Sparrow’s Maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, kettle, kettle? And perhaps my favorite from the White-eyed Vireo, Quick, Pick up the Beer Check.
Some people send me a sound file of a bird song or call. That’s helpful, but I still get stumped on occasion. It helps to know when and where in the world the sound was recorded. I can rule out a lot of birds based on the geographic location and time of year. Adding any physical traits also helps. If you are from Missouri and describe a bird with white wing patches that sits on top of a flagpole and constantly sings a bunch of different songs, each repeated twice, I can be pretty sure you are depicting a Northern Mockingbird.
There are other ways to identify birds by their songs. The Smithsonian Zoo has a song identification guide and there are a number of apps you can get on your cell phone. I find the Merlin Bird ID amazing in that it can detect and identify bird songs even at a distance and with some background noise. Some field guides have sound spectrographs or sonographs. I find them pretty handy; Audubon has an explanation about interpreting them.
Some people think they can imitate bird songs, like the guy who used to regularly appear on the old Johnny Carson show. He was funny but not always accurate. When I taught Ornithology, I used a sonograph to produce a sonogram of an actual bird song. Then I would ask a couple of students to imitate that bird song. Occasionally a student would do a pretty good job of it, at least to our human ears. But when I made a sonogram of the human imitation, it was nothing like the bird song. Our ears are just not as good as those of birds’.
The other day I received another one of those requests to identify a bird song from a written description. Hard enough, but this request was from the island of Cyprus. Talk about hard………