We still have three weeks till the official start of summer, but the occasional surge of hot weather, the more intense sunlight, the trees now unabashedly headed toward full leafing out – all of these say the human calendar’s off a little: Already, summer is upon us.
Every year about this time, when the birds become more visible, and their vocalizations are the backdrop of our days, I get in my foreign-language state of mind and think about learning to distinguish one fairly common bird from another by its calls.
I already have memorized the sounds of such birds as the cardinal and jay, chickadee and mockingbird, cowbird and crow, great horned owl and mourning dove, as well as a host of gulls; and these familiar voices are nearly second nature to me now.
But each spring and summer, I migrate through a delusionary phase during which I vow I will learn the calls of several more birds while they are easy to spot and hear, especially in the early morning and at dusk. I consult the Peterson recordings of bird calls and turn to the Audubon field guides. I even let myself be lulled to sleep by instructional CDs of bird song.
Every year I tell myself I will be able to hear what the ornithological experts discern and dutifully record. I place the CDs in the player and listen to the explanations, descriptions and replays of common birds’ voices.
And every year, my well-intentioned effort ends in the same comic relief: I simply cannot hear in the vocalizations of various birds the so-called phonetic human syllables. After two or three simple calls, I find myself in the living room, listening attentively to the bird song and the human translation, and saying to the dog: “Oh, come on. That is not what that bird sounds like.”
Eighty years ago, the bird expert Aretas A. Saunders devised a system for graphically indicating as well as describing the songs of common birds. In the introduction to “A Guide to Bird Songs,” he cheerily proclaims: “Every kind of bird has its own call or song. It says its name for the benefit of the bird student. If we can train our ears to know and remember the differences between species, we have a way of identifying birds under circumstances when they cannot be seen clearly enough to be identified by sight.”
Fine, in theory. But other than the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of the state bird and the multiple, unmistakable crazy, mournful and hysterical calls of loons, many bird songs are less than obvious. The feathered singers are not tuning for the benefit of the bird student.
They are demarcating and commandeering territories, courting and listening for mates, calling for help from others of their kind (notably, a crow attribute), scolding competitors (including cats) at feeders or just plain singing their hearts out for no practical reason that humans can deduce (like mockingbirds trilling at midnight, keeping the neighborhood awake).
Admittedly, there are some calls that seem remarkably distinctive and easy to imitate, even to the largely tone-deaf person like me. There is the nasal “peent, peent, peent” of the woodcock – emphasis on “nasal.” The melancholic hoot of the mourning dove strikes a clear response in anyone with a sympathetic heart, while the bell-like dialects of male American tree sparrows are almost eternally memorable. Once you hear them issued from high in the canopy, you feel certain you have been showered by notes from heaven.
But other bird songs are not as clear-cut to me. My favorite description that strains credulity is the claim that any listener can hear “teacher, teacher, teacher” in the vocalization of the ovenbird. Whatever might best capture the trill, no variation of “teacher” would appear in my own version of it.
And I definitely take exception to the description of the cardinal’s call as “teah, teah, teah.” I’m willing to grant the interpretation of “whit, whit, whit, whoit, whoit, whoit” in its call, though personally I think there’s more of a long-e sound, as in “whoit, whoit, whoit, wheet, wheet, wheet.”
The “Peterson Field Guides Backyard Bird Song” booklet describes the red-winged blackbird as calling “con-ka-ree” as it rides the dried reeds and rushes in spring. I can go with that, but for me the characterization of the bird’s vocalization as the sound of a rusty gate hinge opening and closing plays just as accurately.
The caws of crows, though they might vary slightly, depending on the task at hand (crows being very industrious, bold birds), are virtually impossible to confuse with any other species, in part because crows’ intentions include world domination, and that goal seems to create very distinctive and recognizable commands, growls and roars across all creation.
Almost everyone by age 2 has heard a thousand crows conniving together in the treetops, on chimneys or along fence posts, so common and austere is their presence in the landscape. As the painter and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson once told me, crows are the only birds you’ll ever see – and hear – “directing traffic on a highway.”
I don’t expect ever to be the equivalent of a United Nations interpreter of the songs of birds, but I do think paying attention and listening to them is worth the effort. It is a basic longing for humans, I think, to want to communicate across species, class, order and family lines. We try to talk to dolphins and whales; we carry on union negotiations with crows; we seek to feed chickadees in the palms of our hands; we imitate the calls of cardinals on walks, in city and countryside alike. We even attempt to converse amongst ourselves.
It’s an instinct worth cultivating, even if it seems an elusive skill to know just who’s calling when they can’t be seen. We have to spend so much time looking down, to regard the baser human qualities, it’s a relief to look up, knowing there is something inspiring to see and hear, a small being uplifting our hearts beyond the heaviness of every day, even if we don’t know exactly who or what deserves our thanks.
North Cairn can be reached at 274-0792 or at: