February 22, 2012
Learning bird song is like practicing your scales
February can be a cruel month. Some afternoon the sun rises up and warms the ground just enough to soften the earth into mud. Chickadees begin to mix their cheerful spring song into the backyard mix, and then just as spring giveth, winter taketh away. A hard frost, a fast moving snow storm, and all that momentum to spring is locked up again under snow banks peppered with road salt.
To make these months (late winter to the pessimist / early spring to the optimist) even crueler is a changing of the guard in the bird world. Winter ducks begin to leave yet spring song birds have yet to return. It can be a quiet, if not totally bleak time for the New England bird watcher.
So what to do in this quiet time? Ask a piano teacher and the answer to down time is simply... "scales". But as any great dancer, ball player, artist, or musician will tell you there is some joy to be found in practicing and February is the perfect month to begin accumulating bird song knowledge. The same way that we work to move our skills from "bird seeing" to "bird watching" we must work to move our skills from "bird hearing" to "bird listening".
Actively listening to bird song is one of the most important and wholly under represented aspects of bird watching (there is bias even in the name). When the myriad of southern songsters return to New England to nest or layover on their way North, knowing their songs is often the only way to find them. Though May is a long way off these are the quiet months to begin practicing, repetition is key as is a good audio source. The best way to start learning is to access songs online or purchase one of the many useful audio guides. While some guides offer sounds for every North American bird, one audio guide will actually walk you through the tricks of learning common New England bird songs. Walton and Lawson's Birding by Ear has all but become the standard for learning bird song and the smart title is now synonymous with the very act… birding by ear. Now's the time to start practicing!