The Garden By Ear

This last weekend, a friend and colleague of mine came out on business. We put him up for a couple of days (and he was very gracious about the beagle and the extremely friendly cats) and he did me a great and unexpected service.

He birded my garden by ear.

Most birders (that’s “birdwatchers” for those of you not so obsessed) do it the old fashioned way—we get out our binoculars, we look for movements, we find the movement, we take note of the fieldmarks, and we match them to the correct bird. (Hopefully)

Jeff has a talent that, while not terribly rare, makes him a welcome addition to any birding outing. He can identify the songs and calls of a great number of North American birds just by listening to them.

You’d think this would be easy, and for some people, it probably is. But standing in my garden on a damp morning, there can be over a dozen species all calling and chattering at once, and sometimes multiple individuals in each species. It would be like listening to twenty different radios played at different volumes all at the same time and being able to pick out individual songs. So to pull this off, you need both a very good auditory memory and an ability to filter out sounds.

On top of this, Jeff does most of his birding in the Midwest and on Cape Cod and I garden in rural North Carolina. And birds, like everyone else, have distinctive regional accents. (Our Black-Throated-Blue warblers slurred more, for example, and he tried to explain something about the White-Throated Sparrow song variation that foundered on lack of good auditory vocabulary.)

And we have some different species. (He’s familiar with Black-Capped Chickadees, we have Carolina Chickadees instead.)

So imagine twenty different radios playing twelve different songs at varying volumes and distances and furthermore, some of them are cover songs by natives of a region you’re not familiar with, and a couple of the songs sound similar to something else but have an extra line in the chorus.

Nevertheless, I wandered out with my cup of coffee and found Jeff standing on the back deck with his head cocked to one side. “Ovenbird,” he said. “Northern Parula….Black-throated Blue…don’t know that one…Great Crested Flycatcher…Carolina Wren….White-Throated Sparrow…something’s going zeeeeet! over there, could be a couple of things…Red-Bellied Woodpecker….there’s two Ovenbirds now…Red-Eyed Vireo, that’s the one that won’t shut up…Indigo Bunting…do you get Scarlet Tanagers here?”

A Mourning Dove went by. I said “I know that one!” We narrowed down a few other calls—the tanager was a Summer Tanager, one of the mysteries was a Brown-Headed Cowbird (which I’d never seen in the yard before, though they inhabit the fields down the street) and the Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers showed up and zeeeet!‘d obligingly.

I keep a yard list of species that have appeared in my garden. It went up by five species in as many minutes. (Turns out a mystery thrush that had been plaguing me was in fact the Ovenbird! Because they’re relatives of warblers, they’re in the warbler section of the bird books, but they’re visually easily mistaken for a thrush. That was both a life bird and a new one for the list.)  And while I had caught glimpses of some of these birds, I had assumed I was just a brief stopover for a migrant, not that the hills were alive with warblers and vireos.

I felt so proud of my little garden. While the real attraction is the mature deciduous trees all around, they’re coming here because we’re the clearing in the woods, we’re the reliable water source, and even (for a few) we’re where the suet is. (And this time of year, we’re where the inchworms are—saw scads of Yellow-Rumped Warblers cheerfully beating inchworms to death on branches.)

Anyway. Whole new world. It’s amazing how just using a different sense can open up my garden all over again.

And now I have to sit down with the Peterson “Birding By Ear” CDs and see if I can’t learn this particular trick myself…

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  1. Marty says

    As both a gardener and a birder, I loved your article. It makes me happy to know that others cherish the natural world as I do. Plus, you are sharing your passion by writing about it. Thank you.

  2. Talyx's Aunt says

    Ear birders are awesome.

    Two anecdotes: When I was birding in Michigan, a birder identified a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Kalamazoo by its chip note. [Black-throated Gray Warblers are rare in Michigan.]

    And the late, very great, ear birder Ted Parker got a new _species_ by ear in Peru.

  3. says

    Every spring I load up all 6 CDs from the Birding By Ear series (2 volumes) into the CD player in my truck so that I can listen to them while I’m driving around. Seems like I have to re-learn the Warblers every year, but I love that I can walk through a fully leafed out forest and know which birds are present just from their calls! Totally adds a whole new dimension to my birding skills.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Big Bugs at Morris Arboretum

  4. says

    I can tell a few birds by sound, but now that you have explained there may be regional “accents”, perhaps I’ll never expand. Fascinating!

    My ears are probably tuned to NY when I should be changing the station to FL. we NYer’s never lose our accents.
    Loret recently posted..Baby Sings the Blues


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