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Birding more than watching

Learning songs can be helpful in myriad ways, including distinguishing Eastern Towhees from Spotted Towhees (seen here). Eastern Towhees will sing “drink-your-tea,” while Spotted Towhees usually shorten it to “your tea.” Keith Corliss

I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten a head start 30-some years ago if it had been called something other than “bird watching.”

The phrase implies, after all, a strict adherence to the visual sense. Maybe I was simply too literal in my interpretation. It’s very likely this circumstance stifled my appreciation of avifauna at the beginning. It took some time and some mentoring for me to understand that listening to birds is arguably more important than seeing them.

Bird sounds and vocalizations serve many purposes – warnings, courtships, territorial declarations, etc. Regardless of meaning, every delivery of a sound by a bird is meant to communicate something.

Thankfully, to the pleasure of nature lovers everywhere, most of these messages fall within a frequency range we can hear and identify.

I remember walking down a forested trail many years ago with an accomplished birder who knew and recognized the vast majority of bird songs present that day. I was amazed by the skill with which this person could pick out the tiniest little note and identify its speaker. My eyes were opened that day, or rather my ears were.

Prior to this, I treated bird sounds simply as a means for me to find and identify them visually. Now, I realized, I really didn’t have to see them at all to know what’s there. Someone with the ability to identify birds by sound will vastly outpace someone relying solely on visual cues.

From this experience I made an effort to learn bird songs. I bought a set of cassette tapes and began the process of listening over and over and over to the recordings. As an older person I can tell you the learning was slow. But reinforced by time spent outdoors and with the help of newer recordings and CDs, I got to the point where I can hold my own, at least locally.

There lived a legend some years ago. To this day, Ted Parker is still recognized as the hands-down best field ornithologist who ever lived. Unfortunately his life and contributions to the world of science were cut short in a plane crash. Nonetheless, his audio skills developed in the tropics of South America are near mythical. Working in the days of reel-to-reel recorders, Parker could recognize and identify the various songs, calls and notes of literally thousands of tropical birds. Even today there is likely no one who can identify as many different species by sound as Parker could.

I’m not suggesting we can all be Ted Parkers. But I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in learning about birds and their identity to give serious effort to the audio element. This is particularly aimed at young people because the human ear loses effectiveness as we age. I know of a few excellent but older birders who can no longer hear the high-frequency notes from such species as golden-crowned kinglet, blackpoll warbler, or LeConte’s sparrow.

For someone starting down this path, I would recommend getting a CD version of the “Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Eastern Region.” Hundreds of quality recordings are included in this set and will set the student well on her way toward a lifetime of enjoyment.

The Internet is another obvious source of audio files. A couple of well-known sites include Cornell University’s and In addition, a fairly new and exciting website has come into the mix. I would highly recommend This page collects bird recordings from individuals around the world by crowdsourcing. Files are added daily to a growing collection of sounds.

Of course, little can replace time spent in the field or even one’s own yard. This being the middle of May, virtually every species is currently singing with vigor. Nothing replicates actually hearing a bird vocalize while seeing it. That’s reinforced learning at its best.

To this day I wish someone had grabbed me by the collar when I was young and driven home the importance of learning bird sounds. I’d be way ahead of where I am now. Still, the proliferation of information and resources available to the current generation is exciting. In addition, instead of bird watching, most refer to it these days as “birding.” That alone eliminates the implication that the pursuit is merely a visual one. It’s not by a long shot.