March 2019

Naming That Song

Part 2: Learning

Clearly, the best way to learn a bird's vocalizations is to see a bird you recognize and to have it sing or call directly in front of you. Second best is to have a knowledgeable birder identify distinctive sounds in the field often enough that you remember them on your own. Online tutorials and apps offer an advantage over classes in that you can study and learn at your own pace and on your own schedule. Where to begin?

Cornell again leads the way, with an excellent How To Learn[1] tutorial section on the All About Birds site, and even a free Academy[2] feature with videos and soundtracks. In addition, there's an online fee-based course, linked from the pages just described. National Audubon offers an engaging free series[3] in 8 parts with carefully selected sound samples, explanatory descriptions, memorization techniques, and much more. Each section focuses on a different aspect of the endeavor, authored by well-qualified experts.

As can be expected, there are also commercial resources, mainly for mobile devices. Fortunately, the good folks at Cornell have investigated them thoroughly, and their review[4] on the All About Birds site describes the benefits and drawbacks of the two best, Larkwire (344 species) and Chirp! (240 species, iPhone only). Both use Macauley Library recordings, and like Cornell's free 50-song Bird Song Hero[5] (a Favorite) are game-based.

Larkwire[6] offers a free, web-based demo with 21 sounds, including Black-capped Chickadee, which can sound nothing like our Chestnut-backed. Chirp! allows you to choose a location for songs included, but user reviews note that it lacks winter calls. And choosing California songs as a set, for example, can add or leave out common species unhelpfully.

As both Audubon and Cornell remind us, using recorded songs in the field can be inadvisable unless we are quite certain what the bird sounds we are broadcasting are saying, and know whether the live birds around us might respond in negative ways. This is similar to the question of whether "pishing", which simulates a passerine alarm call, is appropriate, even if it does bring curious (alarmed?) birds closer to the viewer.

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