By GENE BULLOCK
My daughter once called me from New Hampshire because she couldn’t identify a bird she was hearing in the woods next to her yard.
“You’ve told me to come up with a silly comparison so I could remember it,” she said. “The only thing I could think of was re-frig-er-at-or.”
Her rising inflection on the second and fourth syllable clinched it for me. I told her she was listening to a Swainson’s thrush.
Even familiar yard birds can confuse you with the variety and range of their chips, songs and calls. Birders try to commit some to memory by making up silly phrases that are easy to remember and associate with the bird’s distinctive song. What makes it even harder is that birds have regional dialects and variations that don’t neatly fit these handy memory hooks.
The New York Times recently developed a quiz using questions from the Harvard Dialect Survey. Based on your answers to a handful of questions, they could pinpoint with amazing accuracy where you grew up. Every region has its own favorite expressions and names for things. Folks in New England may drink tonic, but in Michigan it’s called “pop,” and tonic is something Michiganders mix with gin.
Birds can have the same differences in their songs.
I started birding in Michigan, moved to Massachusetts and then spent a couple of years in Texas. I thought I knew my bird songs pretty well until I moved to Washington. Like most skills, of course, they can atrophy without regular refresher courses. But initially, Washington birds mocked much of what I thought I knew about bird songs.
The Eastern rufous-sided towhee serenaded us with a cheerful “drink your tea-he-he” and a telltale “chee-wink.” But its Western cousin, the spotted towhee, mostly says tee-hee-hee, and it often just turns into a prolonged rattle.
One year my wife, Sandy, and I participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count on Nantucket Island. About a quarter million long-tailed ducks congregate there each winter. Every morning, the ducks head out to sea to dive for shellfish, which they swallow whole, shells and all. At dusk, they fill the sky as they return to Nantucket’s protected harbors for the night.
Spectacular as it was, what struck me was the fact that the song sparrows there sounded different from those on the mainland. Song sparrows are year-round residents, so they live in relative isolation from their mainland relatives. Just as children who seem programmed to learn the language of their parents, fledgling birds soon learn the songs of their parents. But the copies can vary ever so slightly over time. Of course, human offspring often alter the language just to assert their independence or annoy the older generation. Fledgling birds don’t seem to have similar motives, but over the generations, songs can gradually change.
Ornithologists have found that when territorial boundaries overlap between two closely related species, songs often hybridize. When that happens, their young may adopt the song of whichever species they hear first. They may even blend the two.
Silly memory hooks make it fun, as well as simpler, to learn new bird songs. One of my favorites is the call of the barred owl: “Who cooks for you,” finishing with a tremolo. Birders with southern roots may think it sounds more like “Who cooks for y’all.” In the spring I listen for the staccato “potato chip” of American goldfinches as they fly over. Around ponds and marshes I listen for the “fleur de lee” of the male red-winged blackbird. And I never tire of the melodious “cheer-a-lee” of the American robin.
Inventing silly memory pegs is not an exact science, and the same ones don’t work for everybody. But they can be a big help in remembering your favorite bird songs. Being able to identify the songs and sounds of your local birds adds a lot of pleasure and makes you feel more connected with the wonderful birds that share your yard and gardens.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website (www.allaboutbirds.org) is a great resource. You can search on any bird and listen to recordings of its songs. The site also offers lots of tips and information to help you hone your skills.