Posts Tagged ‘identifying birds by song’

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds

December 30, 2007

If you are a Lister, you know that you can count a bird you haven’t actually seen, so long as you can confidently identify it by its song or its call. We’ll have more to say about this in the new year but here, for your New Year’s Eve, is a primer. We tried to hyper-link to the Cornell site for sounds but it kept taking us to the search page. If you want to hear any of these calls, go to the page here and type the species’ name then listen for as long as you have time.

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds


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;
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 meetcha.)


The redwing (frequents swamps and marshes)
Gurgles, “Konk-la-reeee,”
Eliciting from the wood duck
The exclamation “Jeeee!”
But that’s the male wood duck, remember.
If its his wife you seek,
Wait till you hear a distressed “Who-eek!”


Nothing is simpler than telling a barn owl rom 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 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 desire.
He should be arrested and thrown into 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, practicing 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.

By E. B. White

Happy New Year from the Fat Finch!

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