Thursday, November 15, 2007

Identifying Birds by Sound & Sight

A couple weeks ago, Robin (Bumblebee) left a comment on one of my posts asking if I would share with her how I learned so much about recognizing the birds and their sounds. At the time, I told her I would send an e-mail, but then I thought to myself that it might be a good idea for a blog post in case anyone else might be interested in any of my ideas.

First of all, I want to assure you that I'm no "Science Chimp." I have very little scientific knowledge of the birds in my backyard or elsewhere. I am, however, fairly obsessive about watching and identifying birds. If I have a day off--especially during FeederWatch season--it wouldn't be unusual for me to sit in front of the window watching birds for 4 hours (or more!)

So anyway, back to the original intent of this post. When I worked at Wild Birds Unlimited, I became more knowledgable about the birds because it was important for my job. The store sold a good variety of field guides and audio CDs for bird identification and I purchased many of them for my own use plus, I could share recommendations with the customers. The first bird song CD I purchased was John Fieth's "Bird Song Ear Training Guide," and I would listen to this CD in the car during my daily commute. I really like this CD for a couple of reasons: First of all, there are mnemonics included with each bird call (i.e., common yellowthroat sounds like "witchety, witchety, witchety"). And secondly, the birds are grouped by species, so if you've at least seen the bird enough for a partial ID (i.e., sparrow, vireo, or warbler), you can go to that section of birds and listen to them in alphabetical order until you hear the song that identifies your bird.

Especially in the spring, I listen to this CD repeatedly because I learn best from repetition. Once I start feeling more confident, I hit the random button on my CD player and see how well I do without having the birds in order. Listening to this CD has really sharpened my ID skills....sometimes I can't always remember the name of the bird and have to review the CD, but if I can remember the mnemonic, it makes it easier. Some of the more unusual birds I've been able to identify by their call (thanks to this CD) are: Common Snipe, Dickcissel, Long-Eared Owl, Warbling Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher.

The other CD I've used is the companion to my Birds of Minnesota field guide (by Stan Tekiela). This CD is really helpful because Stan does the narration which includes information about the bird and habitat where you're mostly likely to find the bird, in addition to the actual bird call. The one thing I really like about this CD is that it also gives the sound of woodpeckers tapping on the trees. A lot of times when I'm out in the woods, I'll hear a woodpecker tapping but can't see it. This CD helped me to figure out that was a yellow-bellied sapsucker I heard tapping on a tree.

Because I spend a lot of time out in the woods, especially in the dark, I found a couple of other CDs that helped to identify what I was hearing out there. Now just so you know, it wasn't too many years ago that I was totally terrified to be out there by myself in the dark--and hearing lots of creepy noises. However, Lang Elliot has produced two excellent CDs that helped me overcome my fear of the dark: "Wild Sounds of the Northwoods" and "A Guide to Night Sounds."

Since there are obviously no woman-eating critters in the woods of Southeastern Minnesota, there was really nothing for me to be so scared of (and "get a grip, Ruthie, you're carrying a weapon!") After listening to these two CDs, and identifying what some of those sounds were I was hearing, I now walk into the woods with no fear. In fact, it's kind of neat to hear these night-time sounds and know which birds or animals are making them.

In my collection of field guides, I have 12 just for birds. The one I like best for general ID is Kenn Kaufman's focus guide to Birds of North America. I really like the photograph format used in this book. I also like Stan Tekiela's field guides. I have 7 different ones that he's written--not just birds, but for wildflowers, mammals, and trees, too. His bird field guides are neat because the birds are sorted by color and size (from smallest to largest) within each color category. He also has produced these field guides for birds of specific states, so I have one for Minnesota and also for California (when I go to visit my brother). Some of the other states include Virginia, the Carolinas, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia (they're available on or check at your local Wild Birds Unlimited).

So, there you go, Robin (Bumblebee)....this is probably more information than you were looking for, but aren't you glad I didn't try to put it all in an e-mail?


Ruth said...

I transferred one of the Lang Elliot CDs onto my computer and try to listen to a clip every now and then. Our dog listens intently to the bird songs too.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Ruth,
That's good that Dakota is a "bird" dog! I can only listen to mine in the house if the spousal unit isn't around, 'cuz he will give me too much crap about it!

mon@rch said...

I am a big fan of the birding by ear series and have even put the mp3's onto my cellphone to listen to when I have nothing better to do! Great post you have here and I am like you loving to learn about our feathery friends!

RuthieJ said...

Hi Mon@rch,
Thanks for your kind words. I'm having a hard time imagining when you might have nothing better to do!
You're fortunate to have "hands-on" learning with our feathered friends.

Marsha said...

Thanks for a very informative post. I confess, I am a backyard bird "watcher" and haven't paid much attention to their calls. Now, I think I'll put one on my Christmas wish list. Thanks, for being Santa's helper!

"no woman-eating creatures in the woods" - you're making me smile so early in the morning!

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Ruthie, this is perfect! Thanks so much for the details and recommendations, particularly for listening to the CDs in the car. I have a software program for my computer, but I never seem to find the time while I'm sitting here. Listening to a CD and testing myself is a fabulous idea.

I recently throught about exploring in the woods at night. Perhaps when it's warmer. Right now it's all I can do to take the little dogs out for their pottie breaks!

Thanks again!

--Robin (Bumblebee)

RuthieJ said...

Hi Marsha,
These were CDs that worked well for my purposes, but I noticed on Amazon that there are many more! I hope Santa brings you at least one!

Hi Robin,
You've probably noticed the birdsongs are quieter now, but come next spring, after listening in your car all winter, you'll be identifying birds right & left! Have fun!

Meggie said...

RuthieJ: This is great info! When I go on summit vacations, formerly sponsored by National Wildlife Federation, I'm always so impressed with folks that can identify birds by their call or song. You've inspired me to try and become one of those people. I've become accustomed to some of the more obvious bird sounds, but I'm excited about learning more. Thanks so much for the post and the suggested learning material.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Meggie,
I hope it's helpful for you. There are lots of different CDs and field guides available, so it becomes a matter of what you are most comfortable with. Also some of the birds make similar sounds, so I don't always get it right, but at least I have a pretty good foundation of knowledge. The important thing is to have fun and enjoy seeing and hearing the birds.

Susie said...

Hi Ruthie,
This post was just full of really good information. I'll have to look for those CD's..

MOM said...

Ruthie, I still use my tapes that your Dad got me a number of years ago, Bird Songs of Southern Minnesota and Neighboring States, by Nelson and Florence Barker. Maybe I should update to CD'S, but I still like my tapes. You sure gave me a lot of info.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Susie,
We share a lot of the same birds, but out in California, you have a whole bunch of unique birds that we never see here in the east, so be sure to look for a bird song CD of western birds.

Hi Mom,
I think I was with Dad when he bought you those tapes. If you ever want to borrow either of my CDs, I'd be happy to loan them to you. Boris would probably be pretty interested in hearing them too!

Mary said...

Great inforamtion, Ruthie! I had to laugh at your spousal unit comment. There are times at the office when I want to listen to a bird song and I'll click on Cornell's site and listen...turning the volume down...I don't want everyone at the office to roll their eyes. LOL!

RuthieJ said...

Hi Mary,
LOL! I understand exactly what you're talking about, but it's weird, isn't it? Surveys say that birdwatching is the second most popular hobby in the U.S., but in my office setting too, almost no one knows anything about birds or at least they're not talking about it....

Cathy said...

Ruthie! This was excellent! I'm going out tomorrow to track down the CDs. Try as I might - I still have trouble with the Wood Warblers. There are a few that are so distinctive that they're easy, but many that leave me flummoxed.

I can't imagine you being scared:0) I mean anybody that can ride a motorcycle is pretty fearless.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Cathy,
Good luck in your search and let me know which one your finally decide on. Warblers and Sparrows are my most difficult and the John Feith CD covers them all--in addition to the vireos and flycatchers. I spend alot of time listening to this CD in March & April prior to (& during) spring migration and it's been really helpful.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

My DB and I are a birders too so we have lots of birding recordings from albums to cds. I just love the idea of the cds of night sounds. I will have to get these and listen to what I am hearing. It is always fun to try to figure out what I am hearing at night.

Birds make many different calls and dusk. Especially if you are around water. Of course then there are the frogs which I have cds to try to figure out.

Fun post.

Larry said...

Very informative post!I can't really get in to the repetition thing but every person can have a system that works.I use a birds of CT CD which quizzes you on different bird songs.-Wild Birds is a cool store.I souldn't mind dropping down a few bucks there.