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Learning Birds Songs And Notes

( Originally Published 1910 )

THE person who can recognize the notes and songs of birds has a great advantage in studying them over those who do not. To such a one the sound is the clear and certain announcement by the bird of its presence, Standing quietly, almost anywhere, he can say to a companion, here is this bird, there is that, yonder is so and so, and al most at once name a dozen or two species that are singing or calling in the immediate vicinity. If the other be incredulous about some particular species, he can listen again, take the bearings of the place from which the sound proceeds, and then show the bird to the doubter.

They say that " seeing is believing," but to a certain degree this is true of hearing, as well. Certain bird songs are just as characteristic as are the visual appearances of the birds. In a few cases birds can imitate the notes of others, as the blue jay the scream of the red-shouldered hawk, but in the great majority of cases no such imitations have ever been recorded, just as one can infallibly recognize Chopin's " Polonaise Militaire " or the Wedding March from Lohengrin as soon as the first notes are sounded, so does one the " conk-a-ree-e" of the red-winged blackbird or the rollicking medley of the bobolink. They are distinct and inimitable, and in hearing them one knows, not only that it is in correct form, but also that it is sung by the author.

If one is looking up some particular bird or birds, acquaintance with the bird's song or notes is of wonderful assistance. To cite an instance I was out with a friend in early June to investigate blue-winged warblers, hoping to discover an individual of the hybrid forms of the Brewster's or Lawrence's warblers, and then to attempt to trace out the nest, so as to learn something of their little-known relationships. We went to some typical country for the blue-wing the edge of woods bordering scrubby fields and listened for songs. The usual song is a drawling lisp of two notes, very characteristic," ee-e, zee-e," - the " easy " song, I sometimes call it.

Almost upon arrival we heard one sing, and traced it out in the thick foliage. It was a typical blue-wing, so we left it and went on farther, heard an-other, and traced it out with the same results. This we repeated about eight or ten times, when the singer proved, to our joy, to be a male Lawrence's warbler. Knowing that the nest was doubtless not far from where the bird continued to sing, we put in two hour's hard work beating and examining the weeds and low bushes, part of the time on hands and knees, and then flushed the female from the nest on the ground under some sprouts and debris. It contained four eggs of the warbler and two of the cowbird. It was a case of a typical female blue-wing mated with a Lawrence's hybrid a fine and rare discovery, due entirely to our knowing the bird's notes. This suggests what can be done in many other cases.

There is nothing in bird-study more puzzling to the beginner than early on a fine morning about the middle of May, when the spring migration is in full tide, to be out amid the wonderful chorus of bird voices and try to recognize the individual songs. It is more difficult than to segregate the different instruments of the orchestra in a symphony, for it is the symphony of Nature, a grander one than even the immortal Beethoven could devise. It is the model for the " symphonic poem," compared with which even so ingenious an one as Liszt's St. Francis Preaching to the Birds " falls far short. More instruments and kinds of instruments play in this orchestra than in the wildest dreams of the very latest disciples of Wagner and Strauss. Its grandeur and elaboration are indeed confusing. While trying to hear one bird, a score break in, with not only the regulation notes but every variation upon them of which they are capable.

For this reason I consider that the best time to begin bird-study is the early spring, say in the cool weather of late March or early April, before the great host of birds begin to arrive. The morning is the best time for songs, especially early in the season, though there is some singing all day, and along in the afternoon the chorus starts off again. As soon as possible get familiar with the songs of the more common birds, the " stand-bys." This will eliminate a considerable part of the later chorus from the ranks of the unknown and enable one to devote the time to getting hold of really new things, without wasting it in following up robins and the like.

I think that there is no better and more valuable advice that I could give at the outset than to impress upon the student who really wants to know the birds and to become expert the necessity of making free use of the note-book in writing down brief descriptions and impressions of bird's notes and songs. We find some bird of especial interest, and have a chance to hear it sing over and over again. "Surely," one thinks, " I shall always remember it." But memory is fleeting, and notably regarding so intangible a thing as bird-music. It is apt to be not long until the thing has utterly escaped us.

I remember, when visiting the Magdalen Islands, how much delighted the members of our party were in listening to the clear, beautiful, elaborate song of the fox sparrow. It became very familiar to us, so much so that I failed to write down any description of it, and now I cannot recall it with any clearness, when I attempt a mental or verbal rehearsing. I can make the same confession about the songs of certain migrant warblers, especially some that are scarce and do not sing a great deal with us. We hear them some day, and then may not happen to again for years, and by the next time we have entirely forgotten. But just a few catch-words, if based on one's own experience, will recall them delightfully. Unless one has an unusual memory and ear for music, such a practice will be of the greatest value.

Most of us cannot attempt to set down bird-songs by musical notation. Many songsters do not seem to pay much heed to the intervals of our scale, or their notes are pitched too high for us to judge. Of course the notation would indicate time-values, yet few are trained to think in this way. To the majority, representation by some form of words to which the song has an imagined resemblance, at least in time and accent, will serve as a reminder to call up an image of the song as it sounded. Certain of these word-" mnemonics" that have been published have become classic and not unhelpful. The scarlet tanager is supposed to say " chip-churr," the white-throated sparrow " peabody, peabody," the blue jay " jay, jay," the chewink or towhee " tow-hee," the nuthatches " ank, ank," the quail " bob-white " or " more-wet," the night heron " quawk." Such words do very well to suggest the note, and many other notes or songs could be similarly suggested.

Where the songs are more lengthy, one can use repeated syllables, like " zee-zee," or " che-thee," with other vowel sounds introduced to show pitch or quality, as the vowel " o " for lower pitch, and " a " for harshness. For example we may describe the prairie warbler's song as " zee-zee," etc., about seven of these syllables, at the same rate or tempo, in ascending scale, each note a little higher than the pre-ceding. The song of the field sparrow is similar, only that these " zee-zee " notes begin slow and are delivered faster and faster toward the end. Or we might describe a familiar song of the black throated green warbler, lazily droned from the tall pines, by both methods," a-a, see-e, ze-ze-ze, zee," or " Ah, see, listen to me."

Though comparisons are said to be odious, when it comes to helping to learn bird-songs, they are very useful and honorable. Dr. L. B. Bishop, describing to me the song of the worm-eating warbler, put it in a delightfully fresh and epigrammatic fashion calculated to stick in the memory. " If you hear a chippy sing in the woods, it is a worm-eater." From such a description one could go right out, in a region which the bird frequented and find it, even if he had never heard nor seen it before. Here is another, the song of the blackpoll warbler sounds like the rapid clinking of two pebbles together. How easily one can recognize the sound of those pebbles from elm or orchard the last of May!

Suppose, now, we are out for a walk in early April. Probably the first thing we hear is the loud caroling of the robin. That is a fundamental sound. Later we must note the difference between it and the Baltimore oriole's clear flute-notes, and the sweet, more continuous warble of the rose-breasted grosbeak. The song sparrow's pretty melody arises on all sides.

By this time the vesper sparrow is with us, in dry fields, and it will be well to take pains to distinguish his song, somewhat similar, yet perhaps sweeter and more subdued. The meadowlark's plaintive whistle and chucklings come from yonder field, and the red winged blackbird splutters away in the meadow. From the orchard, or often from the skies above, comes the ethereal warbling of the bluebird, so characteristic, so welcome. In extreme contrast are the harsh cluckings of the grackle, or their wheezy creakings, as is the similar " wheel-barrow" chorus from the flock of migrant rusty grackles in the tree on the edge of the swamp, and the ludicrous " cluck-see " of the cowbird, wrung forth by great convulsion of the body, is not much better.

The throaty little " phe-be " of the phoebe on the shed roof or the old bridge is very different from the clear pee-wee-e " whistle sometimes produced by the chickadee in late winter, giving to many the false impression that phoebe is wintering in the cold North. This is the season when the simple, chippy-like trill of the junco is heard in the land, before it departs for Canada. The soft cooings of the mourning dove are wafted on the breeze from the edge of the woodland," coo-oo-o," sounding much like the great horned owl in the distance. We hear the faint lisping of the cedar-birds, which could best be represented by a line of the letter " s," as the flock dashes by.

Notice the watchman's-rattle cry of the kingfisher by the pond or stream, and forever distinguish it.

The swamp sparrow and the pine warbler are among the rather early birds, and each has a simple trill after the manner of the junco. The sparrow, though, sings from the swamp, and the junco now is soon gone, thus making less the confusion of trills, though the chippy promptly takes his place. The crows are mating and noisy, as are the blue jays with their essentially corvine screams, their little rolling alarm-whistle, and mimicry of the hawk,

Early in May nearly everything pours in at once. It would be impossible and unnecessary here to describe each song, and there are special books to treat of this in full. My purpose is rather to throw out suggestions of method and practical hints for working, to start the bird-lover in the way he should go. It will be a delightful way, though not always plain sailing. In learning notes there is always bound to be some confusion and uncertainty. Even when one has learned the most characteristic songs and notes of many of the birds and thinks he can recognize them, he will find that most species have more or less variety in expression, and individuals often develop personal peculiarities in their speech. Some song sparrow will warble a new song and make you think, till you actually see it sing, that a new bird has arrived. This adds to the difficulty, but on the other hand makes the study all the more fascinating. If one persists, as with the musician, there will be in time a considerable and growing repertoire.

Perhaps I am not too fanciful when I feel that there is in bird-music considerable sentiment of the same sort as there is in our own. Sometimes there may be a suggestion in form, as when Mr. Henry Oldys notes in a meadowlark's song a snatch of the " Toreador Song" from " Carmen." More often to me the resemblance is in calling up the same sort of feelings which are aroused by some favorite Composition. The wood thrush calling from out the gloaming brings to my mind sometimes the opening appeal in Weber's " Invitation to the Dance " and again " the sweetly solemn thought " of Handel's " Largo " from Xerxes. When the tinkling songs of the water thrush or the winter wren issue forth from the banks of the mountain brook in the forest, I seem to hear the rippling arabesques of Bendel's Silver Spring." The bobolink almost sings the friskas " or czardas " of some of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, and the field sparrow the pearly ascending progressions of the "Song of the Rhine Daughters " from Gotterdammerung. Our American tone-poet, MacDowell, does not tell very much directly about the birds in his " Woodland Sketches," yet in the happy effusion of the fire-lit redstart I can detect the flavor of " To a Wild Rose," and in the mournful tone of the last lingering veery there is a feeling of " In Autumn."

As we learn to listen with appreciation to the songs of the birds, we shall be surprised at the wealth of suggestion and mental imagery which comes thronging to us. We need the bird-music, in this busy age, to help save us from becoming prosaic and materialistic, to keep open the fountains of emotion and the vistas of sentiment, without which life would be sere in aspect, barren of its deepest and truest joys.

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