Sound Advice ….and the defence of the European Jay!
I have read on different birding forums the contentious issue of counting a bird as a ‘tick’ if you have heard a bird call that you identify but haven’t actually seen the bird. Some people would argue that you cannot count that bird for your list because you didn’t actually see it. If I could use a fishing analogy, it would be like someone saying they caught a Trout. As they reeled it in, the obvious pattern and shape of the Trout could be seen, but the fish managed to escape the hook and swim away, before been landed and put into the keep net ! I don’t know but I guess that in a fishing competition it wouldn’t count as a catch.
However, in my book, this is about bird identification and not purely about ‘physically seeing the bird’. So if I can identify the bird by sound alone , and be sure of that, then I am counting the bird as a positive tick. I think for me if I have seen a bird previously and know it’s call , then I feel fine when I am out birding and don’t actually ‘see’ the bird but I am certain of the call, then I count that bird as a ‘tick’ so to speak. An example that anyone would know would be a Cuckoo. Everyone knows that call and would say ‘it’s a Cuckoo’, there wouldn’t be an argument about it , it’s unlike the rules in a fishing competition were you actually have to ‘physically land the fish’ . I am in good company in thinking I can identify a bird by sound alone, either by its call or it’s song. Lets firstly look at something comparative to competitive match fishing. The ABA Big Day Count. The American Birding Association Big Day Count who’s rules state ‘Birds must be conclusively identified by sight or sound. Use common sense: if in doubt about the bird’s identity, don’t count it.’ Interestingly though the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in the UK have their annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ every January but is for birds ’seen’ only. I guess they don’t trust the results of the masses taking part who are probably on the whole casual birdwatchers and probably only for that weekend !
So how would the scientific world go about identifying birds, after all isn’t science about being exact and without guess work !
Well what better place to look than the Cornell Lab of Ornithology , which has two words in it’s title that would conjure up scientific approach ‘Laboratory and Ornithology ‘ here’s their introductory paragraph ’The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a world leader in the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds. Our hallmarks are scientific excellence and technological innovation to advance the understanding of nature and to engage people of all ages in learning about birds and protecting the planet.’
Well that’ll do then, so what do they say about the use of bird sound? The following is from their site ‘You can only see straight ahead, but you can hear in all directions at once. Learning bird songs is a great way to identify birds hidden by dense foliage, faraway birds, birds at night, and birds that look identical to each other. In fact, when biologists count birds in the field, the great majority of species are heard rather than seen.’ So if it is good enough for scientists it’s good enough for me , so have I convinced you?
The birds in Turkey that I can immediately identify on hearing their song or call and without seeing them are , Bee Eater, Hoopoe, Turtle Dove, Penduline Tit , White Throated Kingfisher and Rock Nuthatch amongst others. The Hoopoe and the White Throated Kingfisher are the birds that probably got me onto identifying birds by sound or at least making a concerted effort in learning more. I suppose some of you will know the Hoopoe sound and will be thinking , ‘you didn’t know that ? ‘ Well there is always a first time to hear a bird call or song, and to put that sound to a particular bird that you are looking at . If you haven’t seen or heard a bird at the same time before , your not going to know which bird it is by sound alone , unless you know their calls and songs.
My Hoopoe moment came one day when I was walking in some mountain woods near Korketelli. I kept hearing this monotonous call being repeated , but had not seen any bird that I would associate with that sound . The sound or call was unfamiliar to me. I kept hearing the call all morning but could not identify which bird was making that noise. Then a Hoopoe landed in a tree near me, I knew it was a Hoopoe they are pretty unmistakable.
To my great delight It started calling, thats it , thats the bird that has been plaguing me all morning, now I know it, it’s a Hoopoe, I’ll never be in doubt again. Indeed the sound has served me well , every time I hear the call I know there is a Hoopoe around and usually spot it. The same can be said of the White Throated Kingfisher, it’s a very distinctive call and has helped me locate the bird, it prompts me to to look up and see if I can spot it flying or get a location of where the bird is via the sound. The White Throated Kingfisher often calls during fight and in terms of reminding you to look up, it is not dissimilar to when I hear a Curlew call back home, as they too often call just as they are landing
Hoopoe Call :recorded by Stuart Fisher
White-throated Kingfisher call :recorded by Eric DeFonso
So having worked out that learning bird songs and calls could improve my birding and identification I set about trying to discover more. Discover more ! Crikey it’s a whole subject on it’s own. When I was working I was once told of an analogy for a subject I was interested in, which is unimportant here, but the analogy is! The analogy about information on my topic of interest was “ if you think of your subject as a large pond or lake of information, a gnat could sip at the edges of it or an elephant could drown in it”, that’ll give you an idea of how much there is to learn on the subject. I won’t be going into ‘spectograms’ , ‘non vocal sounds’ or ‘sonograms’ that birds make in this blog but if your interested you can discover these yourself. I’ll include a number of links at the end of the blog to start you off !
As mentioned above there is a bewildering amount of information on the subject but strangely enough whilst trawling the internet to provide some simple introductory information to include I came across some on what is essentially a home advice website ! ‘The Spruce’ is a new kind of home website offering practical, real-life tips and inspiration to help you create your best home. Whether you’re looking to retile your bathroom, upgrade your baking skills, conquer a craft or simply tackle your to-do list, The Spruce can show you how’ I know, not your first port of call for birding advice , but I have to say it’s simple and to the point.
So here is what they have to say on the some basics I have added some recordings as examples, Just as observing birds carefully and looking for all the details of their plumage is necessary for proper identification, careful listening is also essential. While birding, you should listen for…
Pitch: How high or low is the song? How does it change in a single call? Where in the song does the pitch change?
Penduline Tit , single high pitch call
: recording by Stuart Fisher
Quality: Would you describe the song as a warble, buzz, rattle, screech, whistle, bugle or some other tone? Are there different tones in the same song?
Jay, definitely a screecher :recording by Gary Harbour
Length: How long is the song? Can you count the seconds it lasts? How long does the bird sing, even if the song is repeated?
Hoopoe , repeats three times, regular spacing between each note : recording by Stuart Fisher
Tempo: How many beats does the song have? How quick are those beats? What pauses are part of the song?
Scops owl , monotonous call three/four seconds apart. recording by Tero Linjama
Volume: Does the song change volume? If so, where and how? Do different birds sing similar songs but at different volumes?
Greenfinch tuneful with distinctive wheeze ending to song
recording W Agster
Repetition: Are the same syllables repeated several times? How many times? How many similar sequences are part of the song?
no deviation from these boy , if you hear one that’s what it is !
Wood Pigeon : recorded by Marc Anderson,
Collared Dove :recorded by Patrick Blake ,
Turtle Dove :recorded by Lars Lachmann
For those of you new to thinking about bird song and calls I hope it has sparked your interest and you can look at the links at the end of this blog to further your discovery , it is a fascinating world.
You’ll see above and hopefully will have listened to the European Jay which has a characteristically horrible screech call, but thats not the full story. Earlier I mentioned that if you have heard a bird call or song , and don’t know it, but also cannot see the bird making that sound , there is no way to know what that bird is and you may end up making an incorrect guess. The only certain way is to see the bird making that noise/call/song. An example I have had in the past is a Chaffinch . Whilst out walking on a number of days I had heard this bird call of two notes a bit like a very slow wolf whistle , for several days it intrigue me until one day I saw a Chaffinch land on top of a bush and started to make that very call, a little like my Hoopoe moment that was my Chaffinch moment , I hear that call on a number of occasions in Karavarasi Forest and although I often can’t see the bird I know its a Chaffinch. Another ‘hear and see’ moment happened a few years back. We had stopped for a drink in a bar in Dalyan and where sat on a swing when I heard a very sweet and gentle calls and song from a bird and was looking around for what warbler was making that sound, you can listen here : recorded by Jarek Matusiak
For a while it stumped me and we just carried on with our drinks, but the song got nearer and nearer, until it was just above our heads on a branch, yeah it was a Jay in a happy place, a bit like a cat purring , it was clearly very contented and gave a beautiful ten minute rendition. Very sweet and not harsh like I would associate with a Jay . The Jays in our garden purr a lot , it’s lovely. Happy Listening !
All recording downloaded in this blog are from : Xeno-canto
xeno-canto is a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world. Whether you are a research scientist, a birder, or simply curious about a sound that you heard out your kitchen window, we invite you to listen, download, and explore the bird sound recordings in the collection.
The license for the recordings are here