What’s that song again?

I hear much better than I can see, especially when it comes to finding birds. 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!

I’m reposting this poem cause it’s a good one and some of you may have missed it when I first shared it here.


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.

Now go back and read it again out loud!


8 thoughts on “What’s that song again?”

  1. I DID read it out loud :o) Author forgot “drink your tea” and “tea kettle” (towhee and carolina wren). Whenever I hear a towhee, I think of you. You taught me how to “spot” one.

  2. That E.B. White was a good egg.

    My birdjam-phone has really helped me a lot in learning the birds because I can take it out into the field and scroll around until I find the sound. I love it!

  3. how timely your post! I was up late the other night, outside in the hot tub (how Californian can you get?) and I heard the most amazing bird conversation going on in the hills that surround my house. I have no idea who they were or what they were saying, and wished I’d had an expert sitting there with me. It was quite a conversation between these two. At midnight, no less!

  4. Ha! I always think Carolina Wrens are saying “video video video” instead of “tea kettle”. 🙂

    Whenever I hear a bird and mention its ID to a non-birder friend though… they all seem to think I’m insane.

  5. Susan: Those flycatchers will make you nuts, regardless of their accent!

    Liza: Fun idea!

    Mary: 😉

    Jayne: Yeah, it does take time and good ears – and plenty of patience!

    Delia: Glad to hear that!

    TaraDharma: Yeah they do that. I don’t guess there are mockingbords in Ca.?

    Rurality: Ha! It’s all in the ear and the associations we make, I guess.

    I get the same strange looks from non-birding friends. They can’t seem to believe anyone would be able to ID a bird by song alone.

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