#NameThatBirdSong Reboot

I revived my Twitter game this spring, and the bird of the week is lark sparrow! Since I’ve been gone (from the #scicommgames scene) here are the the birds we’ve played…

  • hairy woodpecker
  • European goldfinch
  • northern saw-whet owl
  • eastern meadowlark
  • brown-headed cowbird

Social Media #SciComm

Today is the 1st round of #NameThatBirdSong since my last post, so the game was on hiatus for about a month! The bird of week is field sparrow, inspired by Rick Wright‘s generous preview of his upcoming book.

Rick’s collection of accounts seems indeed to suggest that the song of some creature of the field (perhaps an insect?) was being incorrectly attributed to the field sparrow. This caught my attention because of my prior post about the seeming contrast between habitats for Indigenous communities’ bird naming schema. Specifically, onomatopoeia seems to be used more often to name forest birds than grassland birds in Indigenous languages.

I was initially surprised by this, thinking song is more often what you encounter first in grasslands, but then I realized it can be difficult to link a song you hear to cryptic grassland birds that may be vocalizing far away. Similarly, often North American warblers are lumped together with one name relating to their appearance. Even in Kaluli language, which has a rich lexicon of onomatopoeic bird names, small birds are often lumped together and not given specific names (Feld, 1991).

Small birds would have been difficult to hunt using traditional methods, not to mention probably not worth it for the little food provided by a tiny bird. So, linking the song to the bird would not only have been difficult, but perhaps unimportant. Again, surprising to my sensibilities, larger grassland birds with dramatic displays (e.g. prairie chicken, sage grouse) often did have onomatopoeic names! It isn’t surprising, though, in the context that I’m learning: these were food species. So, cuing in on the sound (and thus by extension naming as such) would have been important to locate and ultimately harvest them.

So, did grassland songbirds “accomplish their goal” of staying well-hidden and undetected, even with the humans that first encountered them? Rick’s collection of accounts seems to suggest they evaded early settler naturalists of the 18th century, who sought to specifically document their song through the lens of European views of taxonomy and natural history. Indeed, visiting the central grasslands this summer helped me better understand experiencing birds through soundscapes and visuals in that habitat. As one can imagine, you often don’t see grassland birds, but more often hear them. Had I not had labeled recordings on my phone for comparison, how would I have known “who” was singing in relatively dense cover and with perfect camouflage? Often, the birds we heard were far out in a field, with no hope of approaching them. Had we been able to try, the bird likely would have stopped singing and flushed long before we identified the songster.

So it goes, I continue to investigate and learn both in the field and through whatever resources I can find. That said, please leave a comment if this sparked any connection for you of a resource you would recommend on the topic! Thanks, as always, for reading.

Feld, Steven. “To you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.” Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Twitter Game Roundup

For my weekly sci-comm game on Twitter #NameThatBirdSong I post a bird song at noon on Weds. and ask people to tweet what they think it sounds like (i.e. make up their own original #altmnemonic). The name of the game is a play on that many mnemonics for bird song are some form of onomatopoeia (though entries aren’t limited to that!) so our interpretation of the song has often become our name of the bird. Intrigued? Play along today! This week’s challenge bird is the white-throated sparrow!

Here’s the list of birds that have been weekly challenge birds over (roughly) the North American avian breeding season:

  • northern bobwhite
  • grasshopper sparrow
  • American goldfinch
  • chipping sparrow
  • dickcissel
  • red-eyed vireo
  • warbling vireo
  • song sparrow
  • chestnut-sided warbler
  • Baltimore oriole
  • merlin
  • common grackle

#NameThatBirdSong Updated List

I run a science communication (#scicomm) game on Twitter every Weds using the hashtag in the post title. At noon central time I post a challenge bird of the week! 🙂 This week’s bird is the red-winged blackbird!

Meanwhile here’s a compilation of the last few months’ birds…

  • red-tailed hawk
  • western meadowlawk
  • eastern whip-poor-will
  • mourning warbler
  • mourning dove
  • Arctic tern
  • great horned owl

Resources for Learning to Identify Bird Song

Like anything else, learning bird songs takes practice and close attention. Here are some resources and my experiences that may help guide you.

How I Learned

  • Mnemonic/Sound Pattern Recognition: When I took ornithology in undergrad, we used Peterson’s Birding by Ear which groups songs by characteristics and thereby teaches you to listen for broad characteristics, patterns and mnemonics. Thus, I’m a little biased and potentially a little “old-school.” Yet, I’d highly recommend this resource to start learning “how to listen” to bird songs.
  • Repetition of Bird Songs: Audio sources that include a compendium of bird songs with the bird species names, such as Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, let you replay the song until you can commit it to memory. Other collections of songs that don’t start with the bird species name can be used for quizzing yourself.
  • Quiz: The aforementioned Peterson’s Birding by Ear audio CD has tests at the end, and since then Larkwire has been released, which quizzes the listener with songs from groups of 4 species at a time. There is still demand for different quiz formats, though, that are feasible to implement with a little programming elbow grease!

A Newer Technique (in the sense of availability): Spectrogram analysis

We didn’t learn this when I took undergrad ornithology, but it’s my understanding that this is now more commonly taught. There are also now many more tools on the scene that make spectrograms of bird songs accessible.

  • Handbook of Bird Biology:  This was the newer textbook on the scene, again introduced after I took the class. Chapter 10 is titled “Avian Vocal Behavior” which is largely illustrated through spectrograms, and has links to online material.
    • Bird Academy: The online material for the textbook is freely available, and under the umbrella of this site.
  • Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America
  • Analysis Software
    • Raven Lite 2.0
    • Spectrogram Phone Apps: While it appears some of the automated bird song identification apps have some catching up to do, you could still potentially record the spectrogram of a call/song and compare it with the above book.

My Twitter Game: #NameThatBirdSong

I’ve started a game on Twitter, running weekly with the hash tag: #namethatbirdsong

Every Weds 12pm I’ll post a bird song, and you tweet your own original (or post for a friend with attribution) mnemonic device, that differs from the widely accepted mnemonics taught for the posted bird song (#altmnemonic) along with the game hash tag (#namethatbirdsong)! I’d love it if you use both tags, but you only need to use the game hash tag, to be sure I see it. So, for example, if I posted red-eyed vireo as the challenge bird for the week, I’m stealing this example answer from my friend Kate for what a tweet entry should look like:

“It sounds like it’s talking to itself. ‘Do I turn left here?’ ‘Yea it’s a left’… #namethatbirdsong”

You can answer until 11:59pm central time Weds, and if you don’t have an entry, you can vote on the day’s entries with “likes” for the tweets. I’ll compile the top 4 entries into a poll posted no later than 10:30am Thurs morning, and voting will be open until 3:30pm. The winner will be announced no later than 4pm Thurs.

Review: Peterson Field Guides Birding by Ear (Eastern/Central)

The 1st disc starts with a “dawn chorus” that is also a nice little quiz once you work your way through the CD’s! The credits mention that it is taken from an album for which I can’t track down an electronic recording, but it has been generated from more recordings than that, based on a quick scan of the track list. I assume the other sounds are from the other cited sources on the CD set booklet.

The intro is dated (1990) with the term “Indian” being used for Native Americans, and a simplistic mention of what the earliest inhabitants of the continent might have gleaned from bird song. From that sparse overview, though, I was led to personally flesh out some of the claims on how Native Americans interacted with birds. For instance, the narrator mentions that bird songs may have signaled food or a predator approach. A concrete example of that is the “chachalaca,” a bird name imitative of its call that originated from Nahuatl-speaking tribes. This bird is still a game bird today. As for predator approach, the first thing that comes to my mind would have been an enemy tribe, and I can think of how birds flush from me in the woods or otherwise respond with vigilance. Birds are also known to mob mountain lions (Morgan & Young 2007).

Here’s the track list…

Disc 1

  1. Introduction
  2. Mimics
  3. Woodpeckers
  4. Sing-songers
  5. Hawks
  6. Chippers & trillers
  7. High-pitchers

Disc 2

  1. Whistlers
  2. Owls & a dove
  3. Simple vocalizations
  4. Complex vocalizations
  5. Name-sayers
  6. Warbling songsters
  7. Commoners

Disc 3

  1. Wood warblers & a warbling wren
  2. Thrushes
  3. Unusual vocalizations
  4. Miscellaneous

This was my introduction to learning bird song, so I’m quite sentimental about this CD set! It taught me a skill I didn’t know I could acquire when I was younger, and helped launch me into my passion of birding. Since it meant a lot to my learning to identify birds, I’m not sure I can be wholly objective about it. It’s my favorite bird song learning tool, though.

I plan to continue to think about how we can learn, and how to teach, bird song. What worked for you? Do you have a favorite resource? Let me know in the comments!

Literature Cited

Tiffany Morgan, Jon Young. 2007. Animal Tracking Basics. Nature.

Learning to Identify Birds by their Vocalizations

I can’t say birding by ear was one of my natural talents: it took hard study because I wanted to learn it. Yet, with many hours, it paid off! I can’t recommend my favorite by ear guide enough:

Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central (Peterson Field Guides)

It taught me how to listen to bird song. I used to have it on an old iPod, which is lost somewhere in a pile of antique technology. So, I just ordered myself the CD copy, so I can have it to lend out and also remember why I liked it so much (UPDATE 9/18: it arrived, and I’m re-listening to it when I’m in the car).

As perhaps my latest posts have suggested, I’ve been interested lately in how we learn to identify birds, and best learning strategies. “By ear” is perhaps a great new place to explore, because most people aren’t auditory learners. So, it seems maybe there is more devoted “learning” here, that requires taking in information through what many consider to be a somewhat secondary sense.

Training my ear first required being able to classify song types as per the audio guide. Solidifying auditory memory included such experiences as watching a bird singing, and going out and testing my knowledge in the field (i.e. guessing a species by its song, and then visually confirming the bird’s identification). Then of course, there’s no substitute for time spent in field study. You hear variations, and continually gain familiarity with songs and calls.

A good place to go, if not obvious, is to keep tabs on what you don’t know. Once you listen to birds a lot, you can pick out subtle differences in chip notes. One of the first chip notes I learned (beyond the obvious and quite distinctive, e.g. cardinal) was perhaps unsurprisingly the species I focused on in my M.S. thesis: painted bunting. From following this species around all day and looking for nests, I started to learn the subtle difference in its chip note from everything else around. From there, of course the species from which I learned chip notes were those with a.) distinctive sounds and b.) those I encountered most commonly.

A current by-ear frontier for me is warbler chip notes, and nocturnal flight calls. There are of course some more distinctive and common than others (e.g. yellow-rumped warbler) that lend to learning through repeated exposure. Nocturnal flight calls are valuable to learn, because then you can listen to migrants passing overhead. I know the most basic and easiest of these, but still have plenty of study to do, which brings this full circle: birding is constant learning, which keeps it challenging and fun!