Bird Listening: Why birding is more than just watching

Recently one morning, I spent a few hours hiking some of the beautiful trails at the Broughton Nature and Wildlife Education Area just outside historic Marietta, Ohio. It was early March, when most of our wintering birds, such as white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, were still present, and some of our spring breeders, such as tree swallows and brown thrashers, were just beginning to trickle through.

Typically, when I’m outdoors, I keep my eyes and ears peeled for birds and other wildlife. On this particular morning, I thought I’d try a little experiment. I decided to hike with my earbuds in, essentially “closing” my ears to any natural sound. All I could hear were The Beatles (the band, not the insects). I kept my eyes peeled for avian activity as usual. By the end of the hike, I had detected about a dozen bird species.

And then I decided to switch things up. No, I didn’t hike blindfolded, but I did try to keep my eyes trained at my feet for most of the hike. I turned off the music and hiked the same general area for the same amount of time. I ended up with nearly 30 bird species.

There is a lot more to bird watching than just watching.

When I was relying solely on my eyes, I passed over tiny kinglets and creepers and reclusive wrens and towhees. With my ears “turned on,” I could hear all those birds chipping, buzzing, trilling, and singing. Most birds, especially in a woodland setting, are heard before they’re seen. If you’re not engaging your auditory sense, you may be missing more than half the birds around you!

You don’t need to be an avid birder to notice that birds make a wide variety of sounds. Some of these sounds are gentle and pleasant, like the beautiful phrasing of a newly arrived wood thrush in spring. Other sounds can be jarring and annoying, at least to a nonbirder, such as a northern mockingbird’s mechanical imitations on a summer night.

But why do they do it? Birds are not singing and squawking for our enjoyment (or annoyance). Songbirds vocalize to communicate. Their sounds can be divided into two main categories: songs and calls.

A bird’s song is the more musical, complicated sound. In most species only the male sings, and he’s singing for two primary reasons: to attract a female and to warn other males to keep off his turf. Birdsong is related directly to courtship, breeding, and territoriality; this is why we hear birds singing in spring and summer, and not so much in fall and winter. Some species will sing from a hidden place in a thicket, but most male birds seek a prominent perch from which to proclaim their songs. Some males sing around the clock during breeding season. It’s those spring hormones that are mostly to blame for your neighborhood mockingbird’s nocturnal concerts.

A bird’s call is usually a short chip, whistle, trill, twitter, or chirp. This is how birds communicate in an everyday sense. Males and female, adults and immature birds call throughout the year. Birds use calls to keep contact among the members of a flock or family group, to warn off predators, to signal food, and in a variety of other ways.

Compared with songs, bird calls can be somewhat harder to learn, as calls are less musical, shorter, and generally less memorable than songs. But mastering bird calls is possible, and, with practice, can greatly enhance your ability to find and identify birds.

Some bird species rely on non-vocal sounds to communicate their courtship and territorial messages. Examples of non-vocal bird sounds include woodcocks and mourning doves with whistling wings, and woodpeckers drumming on hollow trees.

Learning to listen to birds takes patience and practice. It may seem an impossible task, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. In fact, you likely already know several bird vocalizations: mourning dove, northern cardinal, great horned owl, American crow, mallard, Canada goose, killdeer, and wild turkey, just to name a few. The key to mastering birdsong identification is to start with the birds you already know—the species most commonly heard in your backyard or neighborhood—and then slowly add new songs and calls to your vocabulary.

CDs, apps, or websites with recordings of birds are helpful and useful, but these do not substitute for the real birds outside your window. Make a point of watching a bird as it sings—the audio-visual connection will stick in your mind. Some people use mnemonics to help them remember specific songs. The eastern towhee’s “Drink your TEA!” or the barred owl’s “Who cooks for you all?” are common examples.

Over time, with practice, you will recognize bird vocalizations nearly subconsciously, as you would recognize a familiar singer’s voice on the radio or a family member’s laugh in the other room. Soon you will step outside and know those sweet, musical phrases as robins singing, those squealing keeyah keeyahs as courting red-shouldered hawks, those potato-chip twitters as goldfinches passing overheard, and that bright, clear whistle as a newly arrived Baltimore oriole.

As many a birder can attest, a whole new world opens up when we become aware of the incredible diversity of birdlife that shares our space. When we step into that world with earbuds in our ears, we’re missing the best parts.