Some advice often given to newer birders is to practice learning the sounds birds make. This is good advice for birders of any level, actually. I am still working on it myself. One of the joys of birding is that there is always, always more to learn. And while I have gotten to a point where, if I can manage to get a good look at a bird, at least here in central Illinois, I can usually identify it, bird calls and songs can still stump me.
One thing that makes it challenging is that even common birds with distinctive songs might have more than one way of expressing themselves. The red-winged blackbird, for example, commonly gives his triumphant "conk-la-ree" song, but they also have a call that, to me, sounds like they're trying to say the word "zither." Blue jays are notorious for the variety of sounds that come out of their beaks, including doing a not-bad impression of a red-tailed hawk.
Northern cardinals have two different songs, which can be approximated as what-cheer! and purty purty purty. Sometimes, I've noticed, they like to riff on them, too. Just last week I was walking along, thinking, "That really sounds a lot like a cardinal, but I've never heard one sound quite like that before." Before long, I found the singer, and yes indeedy, it was a northern cardinal.
Some birds make it easy on birders by telling you their name, such as the bobwhite and the whip-poor-will. As far as I know, neither of those species is prone to saying things besides bob-white and whip POOR will, respectively. But not all species named for their calls are so courteous. The black-capped chickadee, for example, does like to say its name, but they also enjoy calling out the name of another bird, the phoebe. (As for the eastern phoebe, to me its song sounds like "rizz IP.") Chickadees also sometimes make a metallic-sounding, almost blue jay-like call, just to confuse the issue even more.
Just as I was congratulating myself on figuring all this out, I was stumped not once, but three times, by hidden songsters last week during a walk at the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield.
These are the notes I made in my journal about the first song.
Five buzzy notes, three quick and run together, rising inflection. Zi-zi-zi zii-ziii. Brief glimpse of a small, pale bird flitting in the foliage that might have been the singer. Cerulean warbler?? Habitat does not seem right (trees along edge of a prairie, and I thought ceruleans liked tall trees in deeper woods). But I also saw scarlet tanagers here in similar habitat, which does not seem right for them either. ???
By the time I could look up the song, I had forgotten the exact cadence. I am leaning towards cerulean warbler but not going to "call" based on being 80% certain of the song of a bird I did not see, especially as it would be a life bird and a rare sighting for that location and habitat.
The second mystery song, I described as "another buzzy song, eight notes, azu azu azu ziza." A red-eyed vireo popped its head out of the foliage in the vicinity, but I later confirmed that is not even close to the red-eyed vireo's song. I have no clue whatsoever. Habitat: tall trees in a large city park, by a stream. Actually, that is more suited to the cerulean warbler, but definitely not its song either.
Third, I saw two birds that looked like small raptors fly past (in the woods), calling loudly to each other: Whew-whew! Wheew! They disappeared from view almost immediately, but I heard them calling each other for another couple of minutes. Based on size and habitat, I would have guessed broad-winged hawk, but the broad-winged hawk, according to All About Birds, does not go, "Whew! Whew!"
Despite my unsatisfied curiosity, I enjoyed making notes and trying to discover the songsters' identities, and I am not yet resigned to not knowing. I do have a pretty good audio memory (perhaps from past experience as a linguist), and sometimes have identified a bird from its song long after the fact. I was once tormented, for example, by a bird calling out whiz bang, whiz bang repeatedly in the thickets of southern Illinois. I couple of years later, I was studying flycatcher songs and there it was, though most people think that he says, Fitz bew: the willow flycatcher.
Listening to songs and trying to remember them is a good habit, especially if you can think of a good mnemonic (for example, I think the yellow-throated warbler's song sounds like chop suey suey suey suey--maybe no one else would hear that, but it worked for me), but hands-down, the best way to learn the songs is to hear the bird singing, wonder what it is, and then go find it.
Some day, probably in the near future, technology will be able to do all of the guess-work for us, and it would have been quite satisfying to record the mystery song, hit "search," and have my phone give me the name of the bird. (For all I know, that app might already be on the market.) But would I remember the songs and calls as well? I don't think so. More importantly, if I could make it that easy, would I learn to really listen? Would I know the bird as well? Would it matter?
What do you think?