Learning Bird Song: Some Personal Observations


Learning Styles

There are many ways to approach the study of bird song. Each person may have his or her own methods and special tricks. One consideration is different learning styles. Some will say I need a picture (or the real bird) to look at while I hear the song. Others will say you have to learn by hearing a bird over and over in the field, and associating the song with a specific environment. Still others say that listening to songs on CDs is enough, just listen often enough to master the various nuances for each song, and of course apply that knowledge in the field to reinforce what has been learned. All of these approaches are valid. The bottom line is we have to apply ourselves to whatever method or methods work for us, and this is a part of the learning process. Then of course nowadays we also have access to the many bird song apps, whether for home use or for reference in the field. These vary greatly according to song and visual samples, as well as to depth of explanation, and require a degree of research on their own.


Start Small

When I first undertook the study of bird song many years ago, it grew out of my frustration at trying to separate the warblers each spring at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario. I signed out the Peterson bird song records (yes records) from our local library, and set about writing my own interpretations of each one. Starting with one group of birds, whether it is a family of birds, or just some of the more common birds in your area, provides a more manageable approach than taking on the complete bird guide in a holistic attack. A helter skelter, non-focussed approach may also lead to frustration, if not�complete confusion. I think most authorities would encourage beginners to start small. Build a base.�


Building Blocks

To me, learning bird songs is a "building blocks" process. By that I mean that each song learned provides further insight into the songs of other birds. Each new song learned is a song that will no longer be a mystery in the field, and this knowledge will narrow your search when a new song comes along. In the same manner, this new song once learned becomes a part of your frame of reference and the building process continues. Together with this, you begin to get a picture of bird song that lets you see similarities and differences (the nuances) in a way that allows you to make "educated" guesses, not possible before. The learning process becomes slightly easier (not easy) with the more you know, and obviously a whole lot more fun.


Summary and Further Suggestions

1.  Choose a small or manageable group of birds to start with.

2.  Take notes which explain what you hear. Try and summarize the following:

  Quality - burry, rich, thin, whistled, screeching, sweet, harsh, croaking, slurred

  Speed of Song - rapid, slow, halting

  Repetition - slowly repeated, quickly repeated, very generous pauses

  Pattern - repeated notes or phrases, higher or lower ending, low to high

  Pitch - higher or lower

  Volume - loud, soft

3.  Draw a visual representation with dots and lines that sums up the general progression of the song (each note, trill or slur).

4. *Try and create a a phonetic or mnemonic that helps you to remember what you are hearing (See below).

5.  As a further aid, you might note the location or habitat, and any other distinctive features you come across that might be helpful in keying in on a particular bird song.

* Phonetics are nonsense syllables , trying to represent the sound ("DEE-DEE-DEE..." for the Chickadee)

Mnemonics are memorable phrases or analogies (the Towhee's "DRINK-YOUR-TEA", or the Blue Jay call that "sounds like a squeaky clothesline")