Wild Ideas: Name that tune

The white-throated sparrow. Photo by Cephas via Wikimedia Commons.

Somewhere, always, the sun is rising, and somewhere, always, the birds are singing. As spring and summer oscillate between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, so, too, does this singing planet pour forth song, like a giant player piano, in the north, then the south, and back again, as it has now for the 150 million years since the first birds appeared.
— Donald Kroodsma, “The Singing Life of Birds”

The vernal equinox did not disappoint in officially kicking off spring this year. I woke that fine day to the welcome if monotonous sound of my eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) signaling their return — at least this is probably the same pair as last year, since they’re loyal to their nesting sites.

Even with an aural memory like swiss cheese, I can recognize the phoebe’s raspy, repetitive two-note call for which it was named. While the sounds of some species, such as the phoebe, can be expressed easily through words, those of others are more complex or varied. Some sounds are distinguished more through pitch and timbre than cadence, both of which are hard to describe, so trying to learn them only from books can be frustrating. I usually end up spending a lot of time listening to samples of bird sounds online.

A few days later, I was celebrating the warm spring weather by leaving the door to the deck open. In the forest beyond, I heard a simple three-note song, slow and sweet, that I couldn’t identify. The bird was hidden somewhere up in the canopy, so to work on the ID later, I needed to figure out a way to remember the sound before it stopped.

The tonal interval between the notes seemed to be a musical fourth, so I tried that on my electric keyboard and came up with two middle-D notes and a lower A note in between. I then cruised through the sounds on Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” Web site (allaboutbirds.org) listening for the most likely species.

Native sparrows immediately came to mind, and there are plenty of white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) on the property, so I started with their calls first. However, the sound clips of those and other sparrows were all too fancy, with chirps and trills and other embellishments.

Finally I came to the golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), whose song seemed almost identical to what I’d heard — three notes transcribed as “oh dear me.” Unfortunately, the species is native to the West Coast, but at least I now had a point of reference to do what I always do when I get stumped on a nature question — put a query out to my network of nature experts. I included a link to the golden-crowned sparrow clip.

A Shenandoah National Park ecologist who is really good at identifying birds by ear suggested that the sound may be an early, not-yet-perfected song of one of the two sparrows I had thought of first. I listened to more sounds of these species but still found none that came close. I didn’t rule them out totally, since, as the ecologist noted, a bird’s song often becomes more complex as the season progresses and as birds mature.

Tufted Titmouse has some subtle, rarely used riffs to its song that can be hard to identify by ear. Photo by Putneypics via Wikimedia Commons.

Someone from a Shenandoah Valley birding group said she heard such a sound from the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) several times in early spring over the years and had a hard time identifying it the first time. I’d heard the typical raspy call of this species and its quick, multisyllabic “cheera cheera” song thousands of times, and they sounded nothing like the mystery song. Having listened to several samples of this species’ song with no match, I put that suggestion on the back burner along with others I’d checked out but that didn’t seem to fit.

Another Shenandoah Valley birder suggested going to the xeno- canto Web site, (xeno-canto.org), which has more samples of bird sounds. There I worked my way through the 20 or more sounds for each of the species that had been suggested and, lo and behold, I found one clip that was very similar to what I’d heard — surprisingly, that of a tufted titmouse.

A few days later I briefly heard a similar call, but with a bit more embellishment. Maybe it was the same bird whose song had evolved, and maybe it was another. I still can’t be sure of the species, but I’m keeping my binoculars handy in case I hear it again.

As is typical in my educational forays into the natural world, I ended up with more questions than answers but benefited from the journey. I now know a lot more about bird families and their calls than I did before. I was also reminded that I need to get serious about improving my identification skills, starting with finishing up Donald Kroodsma’s marvelous book, “The Singing Life of Birds,” and listening to the accompanying CD — and getting more field experience with experts.

The experience also drove home once again that I should be wary of making assumptions when it comes to nature — even what seem to be the simplest aspects of the natural world are invariably more complex than they first appear to be.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 287 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”