When birding, nothing beats a good ear
(published 11-16-09)

Have you seen and heard the kinglet? If not, the finer inner world of nature is a sealed book to you. When your senses take in the kinglet they will take in a thousand other objects that now escape you.

These words are from an essay by the naturalist John Burroughs, written in 1899. His point is just as valid today. That is, there’s much more to learn and discover if we tune in a little more closely.

Birding is about hearing, not just seeing. For many, including me, learning bird calls and songs is the next frontier, the essential next step in skill development and a path to enjoying the hobby even more.

I’m often reminded of my own shortcomings in this area. Last month, while leading a bird walk at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, I was upstaged by an 11-year-old boy. As we walked he picked out the song of a yellow-throated vireo. Sure enough, a few moments later we were watching the bird.

I never mind being upstaged—bird walks are cooperative efforts. And I’m always happy to see young birders. Sadly, they are as scarce as cerulean warblers in these parts. So it was both pleasing and impressive when the boy at Cantigny found that vireo for the group. He had “a good ear,” as birders say, and we all benefited.

We know that young people generally have better hearing than older people, and their memories are better, too. The Cantigny Kid heard that vireo song before and remembered it.

The rest of us might need to work harder at this. Making a correct ID often depends entirely on knowing a bird’s call or song. Sometimes we never see the bird.

On that same Cantigny walk, somebody asked if birds that we hear but do not see are “countable.” Good question, and my answer to it is always yes.

If you hear a bird, and you’re 100% sure about what it is, why would you not count it? There’s one species on my yard list that I’ve still never seen—Eastern screech owl. When it calls there is no mistaking this nocturnal sprite, and it’s always a thrill when one visits the neighborhood.

Counting “heard birds” is also the right thing to do. Kenn Kaufman wrote a thoughtful column about this in Bird Watcher’s Digest. Too often, he said, overly enthusiastic birders create stress for birds when they attempt to further validate an ID by getting a visual.

They might march through a swamp to flush a secretive rail, or play a recording over and over to lure an elusive warbler into view. Not good!

Fortunately, most birders feel that when out watching birds, we are the guests. We behave responsibly and show respect for the birds. We stay on the trail and minimize our impact on their space.

This approach places a premium on good listening skills, and there are many resources to help you improve. I’ve mentioned one before: the “Birding by Ear” CDs from Peterson Field Guides. The CDs are low tech compared with other options but they are far from obsolete.

I’m also a fan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website—the All About Birds section in particular. With a few clicks you can hear any bird in North America. Go to www.birds.cornell.edu.

If you own an iPod, iPod Touch or iPhone, some powerful apps are waiting. Software like birdJam and iBird Explorer can turn your device into an electronic field guide, complete with pictures, text, range maps and songs. Within seconds, you can check a bird’s ID based on sound or sight.

Some of my friends are devoted birdJam or iBird users. They love the convenience, portability and speed of their gadgets. Most of all, they love playing those bird songs. The technology is very slick.

Me, I’m still birding the old-fashioned way. In the field, all I really want is a good pair of binoculars and some interesting birds. If those birds are making noise, even better. I’ll be listening, enjoying and always learning. The Apple Store can wait.

Copyright 2009 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.