In most Yolo County landscapes, birds are usually hidden from view, while fly-overs are often too distant to be identified by eye. And some birds fly by night. In all those instances, birding by ear is essential for knowing who they are, and thus essential for better understanding of the bird life of our county. While learning bird calls is certainly a challenge, it needn’t put you off. Here are some suggestions for how to go about it.
Begin by learning the calls of the birds on the street where you live. You see and hear them day after day, so you can get plenty of practice. Practice until you have them down cold. This has two big advantages. One is that you will then recognize most of the bird sounds that you hear, which is encouraging. The other is that the unfamiliar calls will stand out better, and you can concentrate on them and hunt them down.
Pay special attention to the birds that you can see while they are calling. Having a visual image to associate with the calling bird is a huge memory aid. It’s like seeing the unfamiliar words of a foreign language at the same time as you hear them; learning proceeds much faster.
Take advantage of electronic aids. The website xeno-canto.org has numerous sound tracks of every bird you can find in Yolo County. Use it to verify the identification of uncertain vocalizations, or to clarify differences between similar species. Several smartphone apps give immediate access to bird calls, so you can compare the recordings to what you hear while you are birding.
In conjunction with recordings, work on learning the quality (also called tone or timbre) of different bird voices. The quality is often more consistent—and thus more reliable– than the melody of a bird song. Whether your field guide describes a voice as harsh, sneezy, sweet, thick, dry, creaking, rough, chirping, clear, or nasal, listen to recordings so as to match the word description to the sound you hear, and to give meaning to the word description.
And be patient with yourself. Birding by ear is a life-long pursuit, every bit as time-consuming as learning a second language. Most Yolo County birds are strictly seasonal in occurrence, and the long gap between one spring (or fall) and the next means that you may have to start over again each year with the voices of each new season. That’s okay. This isn’t a race to a finish line. It’s a celebration.
Michael Perrone, YAS Conservation Chair