For the Birds Radio Program: Diagnostic Bird Songs

Original Air Date: July 31, 1989

Some birds are lookalikes that can most easily be identified by voice, and some birds are virtually never seen, so their voice is essential for identifying them.

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(Recording of a Least Flycatcher)

Last week, during National Bird Song Awareness Week, I talked about many different bird songs and calls, but I didn’t have a chance to talk about perhaps the most important songs for birdwatchers to know—the songs of species that can’t be identified by sight alone. There are two species of meadowlarks in the central United States, and they look so similar than only experts can tell them apart by plumage. But if you even a single song you can know immediately which is which. The Eastern Meadowlark has a whistled song that is easy to imitate.

(Recording of an Eastern Meadowlark)

The Western Meadowlark’s song is a bubbly jumble of notes impossible to imitate.

(Recording of a Western Meadowlark)

The members of one genus of flycatchers, called the Empidonax flycatchers, are so similar in plumage that not even an expert can identify some species in the hand. Apparently even the birds themselves recognize their own species by song. In the Northland we get three different species of Empidonax. The most common is the Least Flycatcher, which has a sharp and emphatic “Chebek!” song:

(Recording of a Least Flycatcher)

In alder swamps and brushy fields we get the Alder Flycatcher, whose song is a buzzy “Wee-be-o.”

(Recording of an Alder Flycatcher)

In spruce bogs we get my favorite Empidonax, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. This one can sing either “Che-Bunk” or “Per- wee.”

(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher)

Two similar warblers are most easily identified by song. The Northern Waterthrush is the one we usually get in the Northland.

(Recording of a Northern Waterthrush)

But occasionally its southern relative, the Louisiana Waterthrush, turns up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, especially in the bottomland forests in the southern parts of both states.

(Recording of a Louisiana Waterthrush)

Some species of birds are hardly ever seen at all—if you don’t recognize their songs or calls you may never find the birds at all. One is the Sora—an elusive little rail that usually stays deep in cattails in marshes. You might never realize a sora was in a marsh except for its distinctive whinnying call.

(Recording of a Sora)

A close relative of the Sora, the Virginia Rail, sounds like he’s saying “Kiddick, kiddick.”

(Recording of a Virginia Rail)

One of the most sought after species in the United States is the Yellow Rail. It calls in marshes at nighttime, sounding like two stones knocking together. The best place to find one of these a Yellow Rail is in the MacGregor Marsh, at the intersection of Highways 210 and 65 in Aitkin County, Minnesota. Birders come from around the country to find this slippery little bird.

(Recording of a Yellow Rail)

To learn these or other important bird songs, you can do like I did and hunt down the maker of every single sound you hear until you get them all straight, but that takes more time and work than most people can give a hobby. There are many excellent recordings of bird calls on the market—National Geographic Society publishes one of the best for species in which knowing the songs is essential. The Peterson Field Guide series has records of eastern and western birds—the selections are somewhat short and the many species overwhelm many beginners. Probably the best record series for beginners is Donald J. Borror’s “Common Bird Songs” and “Eastern Bird Songs.” Each of these includes the songs of 60 species of birds, and between the two you can learn most of the songs you’d hear up here. For more information about these or other birdy topics, drop me a line in care of this station.

(Recording of a Least Flycatcher)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”