Singing lessons (for Linda)

My ears are much better than my eyes at identifying birds. My distance vision is not good and I’m too vain to wear my eyeglasses other than when I’m driving. I find glasses especially uncomfortable with binoculars. Because I have trouble spotting the movement of birds, I’ve come to rely on my ears more than my eyes and have tried over the years to develop my knowledge of bird songs. It’s a handy skill to have (and a good way to impress non-birding friends) and is easy to do if you’re an auditory person like me. I’ve always learned best by listening and in school was often reprimanded for *daydreaming*, when in fact I was paying close attention with my ears rather than my eyes.

In the spring I like to *warm-up* my ears to warbler song by listening to birdsong cd’s. This way I avoid the frustration of hearing birds that I can’t see while still knowing who’s out there singing. I like to play the cd’s at bedtime and usually fall asleep to their sweet seranade. I also make a *cheat sheet* that I carry with me when birding to help me distinguish between certain birds that I have trouble with. My favorites are the “Peterson’s Birding by Ear” and “Peterson’s More Birding by Ear”.

My friend Linda at work wants to learn about birds and I’ve offered to bring her along on a spring walk. She’s dissuaded by the early hour and suggests we have brunch, then bird, and finish up with some shopping. We have a running joke where she *sings* a bird song that she heard that morning to me and I’m supposed to tell her what it is that she heard. Somehow all of her *songs* sound the same. This morning she saw a cardinal and I tried to teach her its song as “Tear-tear-tear.” With her Brooklyn accent it turned into something unrecognizable, but we’ll keep working on it.


Wouldst thou know the lark?
Then hark!
Each natural bird
Must be seen and heard.
The lark’s “Tee-ee” is a tinkling entreaty.
But it’s not always “Tee-ee” –
Sometimes it’s “Tee-titi.”
So watch yourself.

Birds have their love-and-mating song,
Their warning cry, their hating song;
Some have a night song, some a day song,
A lilt, a tilt, a come-what-may song;
Birds have their careless bough and teeter song
And, of course, their Roger Tory Peter song.

The studious ovenbird (pale pinkish legs)
Calls, “Teacher, teacher, teacher!”
The chestnut-sided warbler begs
To see Miss Beecher.
“I wish to see Miss Beecher.”
(Sometimes interpreted as “Please please please ta

The redwing (frequents swamps and marshes)
Gurgles, “Konk-la-ree,”
Eliciting from the wood duck
The exclamation “Jeeee!”
(But that’s the male wood duck, remember.
If it’s his wife you seek,
Wait till you hear a distressed “Whoo-eek!”)

Nothing is simpler than telling a barn owl from a veery:
One says, “Kschh!” in a voice that is eerie,
The other says, “Vee-ur” in a manner that is breezy.
(I told you it was easy.)
On the other hand, distinguishing between the veery
And the olive-backed thrush
Is another matter. It couldn’t be worse.
The thrush’s song is similar to the veery’s,
Only it’s in reverse.

Let us suppose you hear a bird say, “Fitz-bew,”
The things you can be sure of are two:
First, the bird is an alder flycatcher (Empidonax traillii
Second, you are standing in Ohio – or as some people
call it, O-hee-o-
Because, although it may come as a surprise to you,
The alder flycatcher, in New York or New England,
does not say, “Fitz-bew,”
It says, “Wee-be-o.”

“Chu-chu-chu” is the note of the harrier,
Copied of course, from our common carrier.
The osprey, thanks to a lucky fluke,
Avoids “Chu-chu” and cries, “Chewk, chewk!”
So there’s no difficulty there.

The chickadee likes to pronounce his name;
It’s extremely helpful and adds to his fame.
But in spring you can get the heebie-jeebies
Untangling chickadees from phoebes.
The chickadee, when he’s all afire,
Whistles, “Fee-bee,” to express his desire.
He should be arrested and thrown in jail
For impersonating another male.
(There’s a way you can tell which bird is which,
But just the same, it’s a nasty switch.)
Our gay deceiver may fancy-free be
But he never does fool a female phoebe.

Oh, sweet the random sounds of birds!
The old-squaw, practising his thirds;
The distant bittern, driving stakes,
The lonely loon on haunted lakes;
The white-throat’s pure and tenuous thread-
They go to my heart, they go to my head.
How hard it is to find the words
With which to sing the praise of birds!
Yet birds, when they get singing praises,
Don’t lack for words – they know some daisies:
“Onk-a-lik, ow-owdle-ow,”
“Cheedle, cheedle chew,”
And dozens of other inspired phrases.

Got that, Linda?

8 thoughts on “Singing lessons (for Linda)”

  1. You are so good at timely posts! We are searching for some bird-song tapes or cd’s. I also am wishing I had access to some of the tapes we had twenty years ago – owl calls, warbler songs, the song birds. Can’t find anything even hinting that they used to exist.

    The EBWhite poem is delightful

  2. I do alot of my birding by listening to the songs…sometimes it is hard to find them in the tree tops, so songs is the only way to go.

  3. “Tear, tear, tear” says the cardinal. I will learn BLT aka Laura-loo! God bless you and hugs to you. I loved reading your blog this a.m. as I listened to the birds (and the morning radio)! The poem by E.B. White was a true delight! I look forward to more birdsong lessons…may even consider that early morning walk…as long as I know it will be followed by a delicious brunch and perhaps some shopping too!


  4. Thanks for posting the birding by ear references and the little poems. If you’re up for it, I’d love for you to let us know over at whorled leaves when you post anything related to books and the natural world. I’m always excited to find out about new resources–wouldn’t want to miss your posts.

  5. Laura dear, have you converted a non-birder into a novice birder! That means you get the toaster oven!
    Welcome to the crazy world of birding, Linda!

  6. That poem rules. I am going to share it with my birding and non-birding friends. My co-workers who forced me to make bird calls yesterday will appreciate it most.

  7. Susan: she is not converted, yet. I’ll keep working at it. Our birdsong of the day today was the mourning dove – who coworker Debbie thought was an owl. So Linda, with her Brooklyn accent, sang the Cardinal + Mourning Dove – tear, tear, tear, whoo- whoo- whoo. She’s nuts. I’ve got my work cut out for me!

    I love this poem, too. Found it in a little book called Songs for Birds.

  8. Laura,
    I envy your skill at identifying bird songs. I have absolutely no talent for remembering the songs from one day to the next.

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