Singing to promote themselves, birds help us identify them

A song sparrow sings it loud and proud from a perch on a wire. Each male learns and sings its own mix of sounds and phrase. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

On the Vineyard, early spring and late winter look a lot alike: bare branches and a wealth of brown. But they don’t sound alike. Bird song is everywhere, now, and the number and diversity of birds singing seems to increase every day. These songs aren’t just ornamental, of course, though they certainly add beauty to the world. To the birds, songs represent important social functions, letting males claim territories and attract mates. And to human observers, songs are a powerful tool for knowing what birds are around and what they’re doing.

At present, most of the species singing are either year-round occupants of the Vineyard, whose songs will continue through the nesting season, or birds that have wintered here (like the junco, the white-throated sparrow, and the ruby-crowned kinglet) but will soon leave for breeding territories at higher latitudes of elevations. But a steady influx of arriving breeders will join the chorus over the coming weeks, and their numbers will be augmented by even more birds that are simply passing through. On a warm May morning with southerly winds, which favor migration, many dozens of species will be singing here.

The rapidly swelling chorus means that early spring — right now — is the best time to begin learning to recognize songs. The number of species singing is still manageable, and nearly all of the birds singing are common species that are relatively easy to get a look at. With a little patience, attentiveness, and a bird field guide, even a beginning birder can likely put names to many of the “yard birds” currently singing.

One crucial skill to develop, if you’re trying to learn bird songs, is the ability to pick out and follow one single song from the dozens that might be audible at any one time. It can be much harder than you’d expect to focus on one song coming from one direction, or to follow one string of similar notes among a torrent of song. When more than one member of a particular species can be heard at the same time, the songs can run together in your mind, making it hard to count or even recognize the songs.

Songs vary widely in complexity and prominence, and for most beginners, learning the loudest and most obvious species first is the easiest way to proceed. Northern mockingbirds, not yet in full song but rapidly tuning up, anchor one end of the complexity spectrum, with nearly unending songs composed of endlessly varying notes and phrases. These grayish birds, robin-sized and sporting white patches in their wings, love to sing from prominent perches such as treetops, wires, or TV antennas; they’ll even sing during brief vertical flights up into the air. Once you’ve learned this song, you’ll never forget it, and you’ll realize that a good percentage of the bird song heard at any one time can sometimes come from a single mockingbird.

Song sparrows also feature elaborate songs, and if you listen to this species carefully, you’ll soon realize that each individual sparrow has its own repertoire. All song sparrows sing a mix of clear whistles and trills, but each male learns and sings its own mix of sounds and phrases. With careful attention, you can learn the songs of the individual males in your neighborhood, and even figure out roughly how the birds have divided the area up into territories.

At the other extreme, some songbirds give songs that don’t register as at all musical to the human ear. Grackles manage nothing better than a loud, harsh squeak (though there is no bird that appears more pleased with his own vocalizations than a male grackle). Jays, crows, and their relatives the chickadee and tufted titmouse all give structurally simple songs, which are nevertheless readily learned because of distinctive tone qualities.

Some birders succeed in learning bird songs from collections of recordings on CD or on websites, and a basic search of the web will bring you to many resources of this nature. Personally, I’ve had little luck using recordings, though I do find them useful for refreshing my memory of songs I’ve learned in the past. A lot of the nuances that help me identify a song in real life don’t seem to survive the recording process, so what I hear in the field never sounds like what I’ve heard on a CD. More effective, for me, is seeing the actual bird singing, an experience that leaves a vivid and lasting impression in my memory.

Fortunately, for many species, the purpose of song is to be as prominent as possible. Sooner or later most singing males end up on a prominent perch, displaying their bright colors (if they have any) and broadcasting their song over the widest possible area. It doesn’t take much stealth to get a good look at such a bird. If you can learn the songs of some of our common resident species, you’re more likely to notice when additional species have flown in and added their voices. It’s a rewarding way to keep tabs on the progress of the season.