Ecomusicology & Bird Song Mnemonics

Thanks to a conversation with my friend, Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, over Twitter, I learned that there’s an entire field of study that is poised to look formally into some of the concepts that have been nebulously floating about in my mind about how we process bird songs. Most recently, I’ve been interested in mnemonics, which are commonly used to describe and help people remember bird songs. There are common ones (some so common and relatively recent they comprise the modern English common names of some of our bird species) and ones that people make up in the field as they go. I always loved when my friends who were learning bird song would make up mnemonics as we were hiking, and I still wish I’d written them down somewhere back when! I experienced the same thing when I taught forestry summer camp, and students would come up with mnemonics when they first paid attention to a particular species song.

Mnemonics are commonly used because they generally work so well for us. My favorite resource to aurally learn bird song, Peterson Birding by Ear, relies heavily on mnemonic devices. There are mnemonics that are almost universally taught (e.g. “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” for white-throated sparrow, though even as I type that, there’s another very common one for that species that comes to mind). Even some that didn’t make their way to the current commonly used name for a given species are in our public American consciousness (e.g. “caw, caw” for the American crow; notice I said recent because the name “crow” probably did originate from a very old onomatopoeia). So, I’m interested in why some of these mnemonics became so popular, and why they were associated with particular sounds in our linguistic systems.

It’s unsurprising (yet no less nifty, in my opinion) that each spoken language or perhaps dialect has their own onomatopoeic representations of the same sound; for example, take the many representations of dogs barking in different languages (with the acknowledgement that different breeds prevalent in different areas do produce differing sounds, too). Thus, it begs the question of how/why certain syllables enter onomatopoeic representation, when as the previous linked list shows via transliteration, often the same basic sounds are available to a given language. Assuming that most of my readers are English-speaking, consider our onomatopoeia for a dog bark (“bow wow”) vs. the transliterated barks on the list.

Dr. Whitney introduced me to the works of a colleague of her husband, Dr. Alexandra Hui, via a link to her faculty page and I was excited to read some of the titles of her presentations in her CV (examples listed in the works cited); these are presentations I wish I could have listened in on, for sure! I look forward to learning more about the field of ecomusicology, and particularly how it relates to the etymology of our bird names and common mnemonics that persist in teaching today.

Works Cited

  1. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, Vanderbilt University, “From Vogelflöte to wichity wichity wichity: Standardizing the sounds of nature in the first decades of the twentieth century,” Nashville, TN, February 3, 2016.
  2. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Listening to Nature: Representing bird song, 1885-1945,” Atlanta, GA, September 14, 2015.
  3. Hui, Alexandra. “From Silence to Fee-bee fee-bee fee-b-be-be: the place of nature in the sonic environment, 1948-1969,” presented at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, April 3-7, 2013.

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