For the Birds Radio Program: Learning Natural Sounds

Original Air Date: May 18, 2010 Rerun Dates: June 2, 2017; May 14, 2012

How did Laura learn bird sounds, and what tips does she have for beginners?

Duration: 4′49″


Before I started out in birding, I recognized just two bird sounds—the whistled song of cardinals and the cheep cheep cheeping of House Sparrows. Robin songs were very familiar, but I quickly learned that singers of long, caroling phrases could turn out to be other birds besides robins.

I’d never heard of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks before I took up birding, but quickly discovered that their song was similar to that of robins. It took practice and constantly chasing down the singers to learn to tease the two apart by tonal quality and rhythm. Baltimore Oriole tunes could vary wildly—for them, I had to focus not on rhythm or melody but on tonal quality.

Since many birds sing from within foliage, I did a lot of searching my first couple of years of birding. Chasing down the sounds I heard was time consuming and frustrating. Without experience, I seldom knew where to look, and the vast number of birds, each with different singing habits, made it even trickier. Some sing from a conspicuous perch, others from deep within sheltering vegetation. Some are easy to at least get a direction on, while others have ventriloqual voices.

Teasing out all these mysteries at once could be maddening. But whenever an actual bird turned out to be the one I thought it would be, the elation helped cement the lesson. The first time I heard a catbird’s mew from deep within a hedge, I wasn’t even certain that it would be a bird rather than an actual cat, but when I finally saw it, I was thrilled, and the tonal quality of the bird’s mewing had become embedded in my brain.

Not every sound we hear in nature is produced by a bird. Chipmunks make loud chips and other bird-like calls. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels have a most birdlike trill, red squirrels have several birdlike chattering calls, and white-tailed deer make a funny snort. So many sounds were out there, virtually none of which I’d ever even noticed before, and each one presented a new and exciting mystery.

That first spring, I heard a persistent piping in my favorite woodlot, especially at dusk. By then I knew that some really cool birds, including Hermit Thrushes and American Woodcocks, sing or call most at day’s end. Whatever this whistling bird was, I knew it would be wonderful to behold. But it was elusive, lived in very wet spots, and did most of its calling when light levels were low and mosquito numbers high. After at least a dozen failed attempts, I finally borrowed a pair of waders and a heavy-duty flashlight from my father-in-law, and after over an hour of determined searching, finally located the singer—a one-inch tree frog called a Spring Peeper. Russ and I camped among spring peepers the next spring, unable to fall asleep at all the first night because of the never-ending noise. I recorded them last week in Port Wing—much as I love birds, the sounds of these frogs fill me with joy and peace, as long as I don’t have to sleep right next to them.

A decade later, when I fancied myself an experienced birder, I spent time in the vast forests in and around the Boundary Waters, where .I heard another unfamiliar sound—a deep trilling very much like baby woodpeckers or raccoons, up in the big pine trees where one was very likely to find baby woodpeckers or raccoons. After dozens of hours of determined searching, I finally found the singer—a gray tree frog.

Identifying natural sounds is like any discipline. A good ear helps, but persistence is the main requirement. The hours spent absorbing, and learning natural sounds may sometimes keep us awake at night, but are rich with pleasure and joys to last a lifetime.