For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Recordings, Part I (Which recordings are best?)
Laura started out learning bird songs with the Peterson recording. Now she uses the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs—most species are on their own track, and recordings are longer per species. She also likes Lang Elliott’s Know Your Bird Sounds and Wild Sounds of the North Woods.
Every now and then people ask me what bird recordings they should buy to learn bird songs. When I started birding, it was an easy decision-almost the only one available was the album designed as a companion to the Peterson field guide. The first edition included most of the birds found in eastern North America. Later editions left out treasures like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Bachman’s Warbler, which are both now considered extinct, but they were still good.
But now I virtually never pull out my Peterson record. When I want a recording that has virtually every bird I could possibly hear in eastern North America , I go to my Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, which is both more comprehensive and easier to use. The Peterson CD includes 267 species on just one CD, and uses only 35 tracks, meaning there are so many birds on each track that you almost always have to listen to several species in order to get to the one you want to hear . The Stokes guide, put together by Lang Elliott, includes 3 CDs that each have 99 tracks, so virtually all of its 372 species are on their own track. Also, the sound selections on the Stokes guide are longer, and the accompanying booklet, written by Lang Elliott, includes information about the context in which each vocalization is normally given.
Of course, it would have been impossible to include every vocalization of all 372 species on a 3- cd set, so some calls have been left out of the Stokes CDs. To get more comprehensive coverage of a smaller number of species, I highly recommend two CDs also produced by Lang Elliott: Know Your Bird Sounds Volumes I and II. These each have only 35 of the most common species found in this half of the continent, but for each one there are a wide variety of calls , each with a brief , easy-to-listen-to narration explaining something about the meaning of each vocalization. Both volumes of Know Your Bird Sounds are pretty hard to track down, but well worth the hunt.
Lang Elliott also produced a CD called Wild Sounds of the Northwoods that includes not just birds but other sounds you’re likely to hear when listening in the natural world. White-tailed deer and wolves, various frogs and toads, squirrels and beaver and even a wood boring beetle are sounds we’re likely to encounter, and it’s nice to have Wild Sounds of the Northwoods to help us figure it all out.
Of course, when you’re actually outside listening to an unfamiliar sound, it’s tricky to match it up with any of these recordings. If you buy bird recordings, listen to them while you’re driving , washing dishes, or other tasks that allow you to focus some of your concentration elsewhere.
Your mind will start tuning them out after four or five, but somewhere deep in the recesses of your brain some of them may stick. Another good strategy for learning from recordings is to make a cassette tape of five species, play it over and over until you’ve mastered them, then record another five species right over the first ones and master that one. Or choose five using your CD player’s program function. Either way, make sure to start with species you really want to learn, rather than learning them in order. If you start doing this during winter, you will have a great head start when spring migration , and birdsong, fill the north woods once again.