Not one to waste time, I put this idle time to good use. Twenty years ago - the time frame for this anecdote - I was trying to learn bird songs. So while waiting, I listened to one of the cassette tapes from “Birding by Ear.” One side of the cassette tape ran about thirty minutes, and if I arrived on time, I could listen to one complete side. If my daughter arrived while the tape was still running, I would be greeted a single word, full of modulation and rich in exasperation: “DaAhad!” Head down in hoped for anonymity, there might be a mumbled comment about keeping the volume down and the windows up. I guess she thought that a half hour in a closed car on a warm sunny Spring day might cook some sense into the paternal make-up.
My daughter survived; in a few years she will be creating her own embarrassments for her own children. And I continued for many years trying to hammer bird songs into my tin-eared mind. Every Spring I listened again to “Birding by Ear” (1989), and its companion, “More Birding by Ear” (1994). These two audio series (now available on CD) are designed as learning tools. Birds songs might be grouped by the mimics, by simple or two-noted songs, by whistlers or buzzers. Commentary tells what to listen for, offers mnemonics, repeats and compares. Then if your memory is adequate, you can go outside, hear a thrice-repeated song, and recognize a mockingbird, or listen to a complex finch song with a short buzz at the end and welcome the House Finch.
As digital technology has developed, many new resources have become available for learning bird songs. Last year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published “The Backyard Birdsong Guide” by Donald Kroodsma. This field guide to seventy-five Eastern and Central species has two facing pages for each bird. The text briefly describes habitat and physical description; a small map shows range. The song description is extended, understandable, readable, and interesting - much more than you will find in any field guide. Attached to the book is a digital audio module. It is easy to navigate to the sound track for each bird, and the quality of the sound is very good. This is both an arm chair learning tool, and a reasonably useful audio field guide.
There are probably other products for learning bird songs; these are the ones I am familiar with and have no hesitation about recommending.
But ... there are hundreds of additional birds in North America which are not included in these learning tools. The most comprehensive resource is the “Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs” - Eastern region with 372 species, and Western region with 551 species. These two sets are field guides. Except for a few people with exception audio memory, these are not CDs that you listen to the way you would listen to a music CD. You use these CDs when you need to hear an example of a specific bird, or compare several specific birds. You know you are in an area and habitat where you might see a Yellow-throated Warbler. So you listen to the song of the Yellow-throated Warbler, in the hope that you will hear the song when walking through a southern stand of pines. Then you begin looking through the top of the pine until you find the tiny black and white bird with a brilliant yellow throat - or until the pain of warbler neck finally sends you to the chiropractor.
CDs are a quantum improvement over audio cassettes for ease of use, but they are not quick references. The Stokes bird song guides come with a booklet. You look up “Wren, Carolina” in the index. You turn to page 41 and find Carolina Wren. It tells you that Carolina Wren is track 81, and at the bottom of the page you see that the Carolina Wren is on Disk 2. Then you load Disk 2 in your car’s CD player or your portable CD player, and find track 81. It is cumbersome, but it works. The Stokes audio field guide has assisted me on many occasions, usually in the car, although occasionally I have carried the CD set, a portable CD player, and a speaker into the field.
When I was in Arizona in January, I went looking for a vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler in a remote canyon. Other birders were also looking for the bird. In a strategy session, someone asked what its song is like. Another birder pulled out a slim electronic gadget, and in a few seconds, played the song. The other birders seemed matter-of-fact about his gadget, and I did not want to be the dumb Easterner. So I waited until I got back home to research the gadget.
And here’s what I found - an Apple iPod, software from birdJam, and the Stokes bird song guides. You buy the software and install it on your computer. You put all the bird songs into your computer using iTunes. The birdJam software organizes the songs. Then you connect your iPod to your computer and - bingo! - you can find any bird song in a few seconds. (Or, you get the iPod from birdJam with everything already loaded for you.)
I just turned on the iPod and in twenty seconds, I was listening to the Yellow-throated Warbler (and yes, I know the photo is an American Redstart). Not only is the whole thing cool, but very useful and useable.
In spite of the snow that is falling as I write, and all visual evidence to the contrary, Spring is approaching. The birds are beginning to sing, and within weeks our neighborhoods will be full of their songs. The entire bird watching experience is enhanced - exponentially - when you can also identify birds by their songs. It is not easy to learn, but there are good tools that can help. Thanks to some of the latest technology, we now have audio field guides available that are as user-friendly as the visual field guides.