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Enjoy the local ‘soundscape’ by learning to recognize bird songs

Feather Publishing
2/22/2012

Experienced birders often use their ears more than their eyes when determining whether an interesting bird is in the neighborhood. They walk along without saying anything, covering much ground, and when they hear an interesting bird they stop and look for it. Consequently, when you are with a group looking for birds it is a good idea to keep quiet because the experienced birders are listening for birds.

Amazingly, some experienced birders can distinguish hundreds of different bird species based on their songs. Recognizing the sound of a particular bird species can be a challenge because in a good birding environment one might hear 10 or more different bird species calling at the same time.

In addition, birds can have different types of songs depending on the circumstances: alarm calls such as the ticks of juncos to signal danger, the contact calls of owls to locate mates, the flight calls of waterfowl to keep the flock together and various territorial songs that are used by songbirds to either deter rivals or attract mates. Some bird species have very large song repertoires.

How can a beginning birder learn to recognize different birds by their songs? I recommend a step-by-step approach. Late winter is a good time to begin because, due to hormonal changes, male birds begin singing to attract mates.

First learn the songs of the common resident birds in your local environment. One way to imprint this information on your memory is to focus your binoculars on the bird you think is calling and relate the movements of its beak to the song you are hearing.

Once you have done this you can then walk along and think that’s a Steller’s jay, that’s a northern flicker, that’s a red-tailed hawk or that’s a mountain chickadee with a chattering “chika dzee dzee” call.

The next step is to listen for new songs as birds begin to migrate into your area and then to find the bird, identify it visually and learn its song. In mid-winter some sandhill cranes came to the American Valley. Their call is very distinctive and reminds us that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It also is interesting to compare birds that look similar but sound different such as the “roark” of a common raven and the “caw-caw” of an American crow.

Another interesting comparison is the nasal “aank-aank” of a red-breasted nuthatch versus the higher pitched “bip-bip-bip” chipping of a pygmy nuthatch. Once you have gained some experience you could listen to birds that are difficult to distinguish visually but have different songs such as the different flycatcher species in the genus Empidonax.

Spring is a good time to listen to different bird songs because many bird species sing at this time. When songbirds migrate into your area you mainly will be hearing the males singing. For a few other species, however, it is possible to hear the males and females calling to each other and responding.

During this winter a female great horned owl has been calling repeatedly in the Galeppi Ranch mainly in the evening and nighttime. She is searching for a mate but I have not yet heard one respond to her call. Nocturnal species, such as many owls, can be detected more easily by their calls because of the difficulty of seeing them when they are active at night. In earlier years in the spring a northern saw-whet owl has been heard calling during the night in the forest behind East Quincy. For a small bird of about 8 inches long it has a penetrating call that carries all the way to Highway 70.

Various technologies can be useful in learning the songs of birds. Apps are available for smartphones that enable you to get a picture of a particular bird species and play its call. This feature can be used to lure birds. You play its song when you think this bird species is in the neighborhood and it might respond by coming closer and singing.

Note that it is not advisable to play calls in this way while searching for rare bird species in heavily birded areas because the repeated disturbance may interrupt their breeding behavior. In some cases playing bird calls is banned; for example, it is not permitted when searching for elegant trogons in parts of southeastern Arizona.

Other technologies are available to help you to learn the calls of birds in your area including CDs that have pictures and/or songs of different bird species, and websites on the Internet where one can see and hear different birds.

A few cautions are warranted when attempting to identify birds by their songs. A few bird species sound different in different parts of their home range. For example, white-crowned sparrows sound quite different in Plumas County than they do in coastal areas of northern California.

Another caution is that on occasions some birds make a call that is similar to another totally different bird species. Steller’s jays often make a call that sounds like a red-tailed hawk. European starlings sometimes mimic the calls of other bird species such as California quail; a few days ago a starling in Taylorsville was even imitating a rooster! Up in the local mountains the chattering of the chickaree (also known as the Douglas squirrel) can be mistaken for a bird call.

Different bird species can make different types of sounds. Members of the woodpecker family pound wood either as a territorial call (termed drumming) in spring or to get food. Red-breasted sapsuckers and northern flickers often can be heard drumming in spring in the American Valley. The champion drummer and lumberjack, however, is the pileated woodpecker.

One summer while camping at Buck’s Lake I heard a pileated woodpecker drumming in the forest every morning. I decided to try to find it. Eventually I found one foraging. It was demolishing a rotten tree stump — presumably it was searching for carpenter ants, which are a favorite food. Large chips of wood were being thrown everywhere. Tracking down a pileated woodpecker is not easy, however, because when they drum on a hollow snag the echoing sound can travel a long distance.

One of the hidden treasures of Plumas County is the glorious “soundscape” during late winter, spring and early summer.


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