Wild Ideas: Let me describe the bird song I heard

Sidebar: Resources for learning bird vocalizations

Books:

• “The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong,” by Donald Kroodsma (in the Conservation Collection of the Rappahannock County Library)
• “The Sound Approach to Birding: A Guide to Understanding Bird Sound [with two CDs],” by  Mark Constantine (soundapproach.co.uk)

Websites:

AllAboutBirds.org
American Birding Association, particularly the article “Describing Bird Sounds in Words,” by Nathan Pieplow
Sibley Guides, particularly the “Learning to Listen to Bird Song” series of articles
Macaulay Library: More than 175,000 audio recordings covering 75 percent of the world’s bird species
• “Watching Birds with Your Ears” at BirdWatching.com

Apps:

• iBird (from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
• Sibley Birds of North America

I woke up recently to the sound of birds chattering and the whirring of hummingbird wings. I was just beginning to wonder why I wasn’t hearing the hauntingly beautiful song of a wood thrush, as I had every morning and evening since spring. As if on cue, there it was, but in a new variation.

The wood thrush’s song is one of only a few bird vocalizations that I actually manage to retain in my memory. A few others, including the eastern towhee, phoebe, indigo bunting and wood-peewee, are lurking in the dusty corners back there. I remember these songs because they are distinctive and because, for all but the wood thrush’s, I have a simple mnemonic — a song or word phrase to help me remember them.

The towhee urges all those listening to “drink your te-te-te-te-te” (the last part sung so fast that it almost becomes a trill). The indigo bunting asks and answers a question in a cascade: “Fire-fire, where-where, here-here.” The wood-peewee sings “pee-a-wee,” with the second note going down and the third going higher than the first.

The somewhat desultory song of the wood thrush is arguably the most beautiful of all our native birds, but it’s also complex, with many variations. While it’s distinctive enough to stick in my memory, coming up with a mnemonic or some other device to describe it is another issue.

On the particular occasion I cite above, I heard something like, “Where is he? I am here,” rising in pitch on the question and falling on the statement. From this description, could you imagine the song if you hadn’t heard it? And this was only one of many variations of what I’ve been hearing since spring.

The word “flutelike” is often used to describe the wood thrush’s song, but that just conveys the general tonality. This analogy is helpful to me, and probably would be to anyone who has heard a flute, but that wouldn’t go far in sorting out the wood thrush’s song from numerous others, especially for those who haven’t studied bird song.

Experts usually phonetically transcribe the song starting with “ee-o-lay” (with variations in spelling). David Sibley, in “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” starts there but goes further, writing the song “begins with a low, soft ‘po po po’ phrase, then a short gurgling phrase and ends with a rich, buzzy or trilled whistle.” This adds more detail, but now I have to interpret all those words in terms of what birds actually sound like, which in most cases is far from human.

Since the wood thrush normally sings its hauntingly beautiful song high in the forest canopy, spotting it can be problematic, and describing the song is equally challenging.Photo via Wikimedia
Since the wood thrush normally sings its hauntingly beautiful song high in the forest canopy, spotting it can be problematic, and describing the song is equally challenging.

Frankly, as with many birds, I find the wood thrush’s song too complex, both tonally and in phrasing, to describe. And I’m not alone.

“The idea that birdsong cannot be adequately put to paper is more than conventional wisdom among birders,” writes Nathan Pieplow in “Describing Bird Sounds in Words,” an article for the American Birding Association. “It is dogma.”

Pieplow then goes on to write that the tools most often used — analogy and phonetic transcription — are the problem. Analogies are only useful to those familiar with the sound being referenced, he points out, and how many people are going to understand a comparison with one bird’s song to another if they’ve never heard either?

Phonetic transcriptions are also likely to be ill-suited to the task of describing bird song, according to Pieplow: “Human language is not good at imitating bird sounds, for bird sounds rarely share significant characteristics with human speech, and thus phonetic transcriptions usually end up conveying mostly rhythmic information, with little or no regard to pitch, tone quality, variation or any other crucial components of birdsong.”

Pieplow still thinks description can work, if it is standardized and includes “all perceptible properties of a vocalization” — pitch, tone quality, rhythmic pattern and volume — as well as a discussion of variations. He goes on to describe each of these properties in depth but offers no formal system for description. Such systems have been proposed (see, for example, “A System for Describing Birdsong Units” in the “Bioacoustic Journal” in 1994).

Sometimes pictures help more than words. With bird song, spectrograms (also known as “sonograms”) can be helpful to those who can read them. Biologist Donald Kroodsma found that they were his ticket to learning and remembering bird song, as he writes in his remarkable book, “The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.”

As Kroodsma admits, his listening skills are “actually pretty pathetic” and he has “no musical ability whatsoever.” After years of looking at sonograms, what he does have is “well-trained eyes. It is with my eyes that I hear,” Kroodsma explains. “It is the patterns I see that enhance the beauty I hear . . . As a bird sings, I see the rudiments of a sonogram form in my mind.”

A wood thrush’s melodic call.

He fleshes out the details of what the sonogram would look like as he continues to listen to the song, developing this habit from years of observing sonograms of bird songs form on his computer screen. He also makes note cards from sketches he does of sonograms to help jog his memory.

The book is loaded with sonograms from recordings of other species native to our area, including the eastern towhee and indigo bunting. The recordings are also provided on an accompanying CD.

Some of the recordings are also slowed down to varying speeds. Listening to the slowest ones is akin to being underwater listening to the songs of humpback whales. The slowed-down versions of the wood thrush’s song are truly lush and eerie, demonstrating its complexity, including varying sounds that seem to come from more than one throat at once. In studying the wood thrush, Kroodsma also found “a confusing variety of terminal flourishes.” The sonograms and slowed-down recordings add more evidence that this thrush is a true musical virtuoso.

While Kroodsma’s book is fascinating, reading sonograms is not an easily learned skill. For those interested, Macaulay Library, with its Raven Viewer, enables users to see spectrograms that show changes as an audio file is played.

The viewer also has other tools for learning about the sounds animals make. The Macaulay library has thousands of audio recordings of birds, with many entries for most species. With species whose songs may vary, it’s an especially useful resource. A good place to start is with the wood thrush files (search on the name on the site); there are 127 audio and 24 video files to choose from.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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.”