My favorite part of watching birds in spring isn’t about watching them at all — it’s about listening. Many of the assorted sounds we refer to generally as “calls” are not season specific. Alarm calls or contact calls, for instance, are used year round. But, spring is when birds sing with “song,” a specific phenomenon associated with the nesting season, as many birds use vocalizations to declare their territorial boundaries or to signal to prospective mates.
For humans, many bird songs are intrinsically pleasant to listen to, but the experience becomes far richer when you can recognize what is singing. In many settings, experienced birders will detect more birds by ear than by sight, as vocal signals often carry farther and with less restriction by intervening obstacles or the human field of view. Recognizing birds by ear makes life richer.
How do you do it? The crucial step is learning to describe sounds with words, which are far more easily remembered than abstract sounds for most people. This needn’t be highly technical and can take many forms, including musical terminology, analogy, a transliteration or an imitative phrase.
Let’s get started. Find a singing bird, ideally a common species that you hear frequently around your home and can already recognize by sight. As you listen to it, think about a verbal description that you can attach to the sound in a memorable and specific way. If you’re new to this, it will be difficult to be sufficiently precise, but fortunately you don’t have to start from scratch. Look in a field guide or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website for descriptions of songs.
Or you can look right here! Start with some easy and distinctive songs and think about these descriptions as you listen, either in person or to a recording from All About Birds. Mourning doves coo in a distinctive pattern, with a first syllable rising to a second, swelling and expansive note before fading away over two or three more notes: “coo-AHHH coo, coo, coo.” Golden-crowned sparrows sing three clearly whistled notes in a descending pattern that sounds like “oh dear me” or “I’m so tired.” Dark-eyed juncos sing a simple, even trill note that doesn’t rise or fall in pitch and doesn’t speed up or slow down, but just rapidly repeats the same note for a few seconds. Mockingbirds repeat a given motif, whether an imitation or their own musical invention three to seven times, then repeat a different sound, and then another, on and on.
Those birds sing very distinctive and memorable songs. Some others are slightly trickier, but very commonly heard in Marin right now. The standard song of oak titmice features a rapid alternation between a high and low note, sometimes rendered as “tee-wee, tee-wee, tee-wee” or “peter, peter, peter.” American robins — one of the most notable singers right at dawn — have a song made up of two- or three-syllable phrases that tend to alternate between rising and falling for a lilting, up-and-down type feeling, often compared to something like “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” House finches have long, complex, musical warbles but often punctuate their song phrases by ending with distinctive long, upward slurred notes: “tayo tayo tatitata teeyee teetoo titi ti-VEEEER!”
There are, of course, many other birds. But once you start recognizing a few, it’s easy to apply the same methods to others. You can enlist outside help to make this faster — a skilled birding friend is best, of course, but Cornell’s free Merlin Bird ID app has a sound recognition feature that isn’t bad (this technology is still young and improving).
A tool that lets you attach a name to a bird you’re hearing is helpful, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the learning process. The learning happens when you turn the sound into something you remember, when you make it part of yourself. Then, the moment when you step outside will no longer be one of effective silence or vaguely pleasant music, but contain the distinct enunciation of a dozen well-known friends. Then, the moment when you step outside will be the moment you come home.
Jack Gedney’s On the Wing runs every other Monday. He is a co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and author of the forthcoming book “The Private Lives of Public Birds.” You can reach him at email@example.com.