Birding also involves listening

May 1, 2011 

The sound overhead was a familiar one. "Gronk, gronk!" That's how I describe a raven's call but that is only one of the sounds they make.

Being able to recognize birds by their voices can alert you to their presence even when you don’t see them. The calling ravens turned out to be two mated pairs who were having a heated discussion over who was in whose territory.

Both pairs dipped and dove while making passes at one another. They called, scolded and engaged in intricate aerial maneuvers but the challenging didn’t last very long. When it ended, the victorious pair landed in a nearby tree and “had the last word” loud and long.

How do you learn the different songs and calls birds make? It takes time and a lot of looking and listening.

However, it doesn’t take as long as it once did. It’s possible to do some Web research that will speed up this learning experience.

A reader, frustrated with identifying what she assumed was a calling owl, brought this up. She started doing some research in her field guides but that only took her part of the way. Searching for bird calls on the Internet helped her discover that the calling bird was indeed an owl, a barred owl. They are known for their “who-cooks-for-you” call, but they make other sounds too.

She had good success on YouTube’s website: www.YouTube.com/birdsounds/North America.

The site is not only educational, it’s a lot of fun. I started searching through it by entering “sounds ravens make.” That was the start of an interesting exercise.

Not only have countless people sent in their recordings of the sounds birds make but they are accompanied by videos. Yes, they’re pretty amateur for the most part but viewing them is a lot like looking out the kitchen window at the action on and under the bird feeders.

The eastern part of the country always appears to be better represented than the West, especially the Northwest, but this is getting better.

The best singing song sparrow I could find was on a video and recording made in Seattle.

Chestnut-backed chickadees were more challenging. This is a Northwest bird. The videos and recordings for chickadees were top-heavy with the black-capped chickadee who is familiar throughout North America. A video done by the Massachusetts Audubon Society not only featured the black-capped chickadee but presented their program for learning bird songs.

A second presentation that originated in Western Washington featured the house finch. Both the video and a recording of the bird singing were well done.

The house finch has a beautiful song but it is very complex. Describing it is just about impossible but the recording was so good that I was tempted to open a window to see if our resident house finch would reply to it.

There are going to be hits and misses when doing this search on bird songs and calls. I ran into a great one.

A purple finch was the main actor and I tried it out because this finch also has a beautiful song and one you don’t hear as often as that of the house finch. The video showed a purple finch sitting in a tree and the sounds of wind were all you could hear. Then very soft squeaks were heard. The finch didn’t open its mouth.

I kept watching as the video played to the end. All I heard were the soft squeaks chickadees make when calling to one another. Birds could be heard in that video but they weren’t purple finches.

A second search yielded a beautiful video and some excellent recording of a purple finch singing its heart out.

Spring is the perfect time to study bird sounds. Some time spent exploring YouTube just might surprise you.

Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or email joanpcarson@comcast.net.

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