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Flight Lines: For birds, it's all about the sound

Bird vocalizations play a vital role in the life of each species. Learning their songs and calls can be a challenging yet rewarding part of our enjoyment of the outdoors. Here an eastern wood-pewee sings from a perch in south Fargo last summer.

We had just finished walking back to my vehicle from a wooded area north of West Fargo a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine and I heard it simultaneously; the deep-down, throaty call from a common raven. Despite its name this is a bird quite uncommon in Cass County. We had been on a short walk looking for early seasonal migrants; the raven was an unexpected treat. We never saw the bird, but its call is unmistakable and quite unlike the unmusical "caw" of an American crow.

Decades ago when I first got into this pastime I was all visual, I wasn't aware of the "rules." Bird songs and calls were secondary to me. I had to see the bird. Over time I watched experienced intelligent birders racking up species totals that I could only imagine. They were ear birders, able to decipher the sometimes confusing babble of tweets, whistles, warbles, and squawks and make sense of it.

Somewhere along the way you learn that birds are "countable" by ear only. That is, a person need not see a bird for the sighting to be acceptable under the rules of the American Birding Association.

Later I read about a legendary guy named Ted Parker. He revolutionized Neotropic ornithology by recording bird songs in over 22 tropical countries tirelessly lugging around a reel-to- reel tape recorder.

Amazingly, it is said that he knew nearly every one of the 4,000 species in the New World by their vocalizations alone. Tragically he died in an airplane accident in 1993 in Ecuador but his recordings are still with us today.

So I began to listen. And learn.

My first bird field guide was a Golden guide, a capable, portable, and familiar text to many of us replete with adequate illustrations, range maps, a brief description of each species and something else that I ignored almost entirely for many years: spectrograms. These are graphical depictions of sound with time along the X axis and frequency on the Y. I wish I'd have paid more attention back then.

I began to learn songs of familiar birds-- chickadees, blue jays, red-tailed hawks—and to learn of vocalizations in general. Why do birds sing? (mostly to declare territorial boundaries and to impress members of the opposite sex). What are oscines and suboscines? (don't ask). What's the difference between a call and a song? And why does a song sparrow in Arizona sound so different from one here?

Once a person begins to wade into the waters of birdsong a whole different world opens up. If you wish to differentiate Empidonax flycatchers to species, for instance, you absolutely must learn their calls/songs as the group is visually nearly identical. Likewise with eastern and western meadowlarks; best to hear them as noting the subtle physical difference is difficult in the field.

Recently I felt an urge to contribute bird recordings to the growing worldwide collection on eBird

(eBird.org) and elsewhere but was quite unaware how to do so. I thought I needed an expensive

microphone and some fancy computer applications. I was wrong. Your cellular telephone works just fine.

After purchasing some sound editing software and watching a few how-to videos I was off and running.

I'm still learning as I go. You quickly realize, for example, that mornings are best before the wind starts blowing. You also begin to crave quiet places, places without the constant, ubiquitous, taken-for- granted background noise that accompanies a town or city. You want quiet. And believe it or not it's hard to find.

But I feel I'm getting better at this. And I'm having a blast doing it.

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