The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

June 5, 2008

So what did I learn?

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:53 pm

Previously I’ve written about techniques for learning bird sounds from recordings and how these can be used when preparing for visits to places where the birds are unfamiliar. Well, now I’ve been to America and heard and seen lots of birds there, so how did I get on with using these methods? Not surprisingly, the results were mixed and I wasn’t always able to identify every sound that I heard. However, there were plenty of occasions when I heard new birds and was fairly confidently able to figure out what they were. Below I outline some of the problems and some of the successes.

Successes: The first birding I did in America was in Central Park, New York and I was pleased that I was able to recognise the thrush-like song of American Robin, with its distinctive alternating phrases. The contextual cue of seeing lots of Robins was obviously helpful in getting me to this conclusion too.

Warblers were the biggest task I faced because there are so many different species (I saw 25 in all) and their songs are often rather similar. Two species that I was able to identify before seeing them were Kentucky Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler. Kentucky Warbler has a simple song consisting of a two-note phrase repeated several times. I remembered this with the mnemonic phrase ‘Fry it, fry it, fry it’ (as said by someone working in KFC I guess!), and this certainly helped me to pick up on the pattern, quality and cadence of the song, which is subtly different to some other warblers, such as Ovenbird. Ovenbird sounds more galloping (it’s almost like it’s saying ‘giddy up’) and less ‘liquid’ than Kentucky Warbler.

Blue-winged Warbler has a fairly distinctive two note song that sounds like someone sighing or even snoring. I imagined someone in blue and yellow (the main colours of this species) snoozing away when I heard this recording. It took just a brief snatch of song to get me onto the only Blue-winged Warbler I saw. I didn’t have to summon up the visualisation, I more-or-less instantly knew what it was.

A group of birds where I hoped a knowledge of the songs would prove particularly useful are Empidomax flycatchers. This is a genus where every species looks extremely similar but where the songs and calls differ more noticeably. I saw quite a few, but unfortunately a lot of these remained silent. However, I was able on a couple of occasions to confidently identify Acadian Flycatcher from its bright, two-note upward inflected song. In this case, to identify the song I first of all needed to know I was looking at an Empidomax and I also checked my own recording against others that I had, just to be sure. I was still pretty confident in the field though.

There were quite a few other occasions when I knew songs without necessarily having to see the bird. The pure tones of an Eastern Wood-pewee and the beautiful lilting song of a Wood Thrush were both very distinctive and when I heard dry rattling songs, I knew, at least when I took context into account, that I was hearing Chipping Sparrow, Worm-eating Warbler or Pine Warbler.

Problems: The biggest problem was actually finding the time to learn the songs beforehand. Figuring out the playlists is a big part of the process, and is in itself integral to the learning process as well as being a practicality. As Stephenson mentions in his article, learning the sounds through testing has to be taken in small, easy steps so ideally it would be best to start learning a few months in advance and to do a little bit each day. My work schedule tended to mean I had to do it in more concentrated spells, which worked less well. Many of the problems I encountered can at least partially be explained by a straightforward lack of preparation. But, why couldn’t I identify all of the sounds I heard? Here are a few reasons.

Only learning songs: Almost all of the sounds I tried to learn were songs rather than calls. This was partly for simplicity’s sake. Learning all the various sounds that most species make would be a very hard task and, as it was spring, I thought a lot of what I heard would be singing. To some extent this was true, but, as I expected, there were lots of other sounds too and I struggled with those. Some I could pick up easily like the Robin-like ‘tick’ of a Northern Cardinal or the ‘chickadeedeedee’ of the various Chickadee species. Others were confusingly obscure or very similar to one another.

Differences between recordings and the real thing: This is another problem that was perhaps not surprising. Many songbirds have local ‘dialects’ and other sorts of variations in their songs, which meant that the song I’d learnt from a recording was sometimes significantly different to the songs of the same species I encountered in the field. This was particularly apparent with Eastern Towhee and Song Sparrow. Of course, part of the skill of learning bird sounds is to be able to recognise the style and pattern of a bird so that variations can still be recognised. That level of skill takes time to acquire though.

Developing the skill of visualisation: Stephenson advocates visualisation to remember sounds. I found this quite tricky and visualisation as a memory technique is not an activity that I found came easily to me. I find it more straightforward to remember words, or perhaps more accurately phrases or even stories. Some of my visualisations worked but I don’t think I ever found the visualisation being ‘triggered’ by hearing the sound in the field. Rather, the visualisations and the stories were useful for becoming familiar with the characteristics of the sound but it was hard to instantaneously relate the sound back to the visualisation when I heard the sound ‘for real’. The mnemonic techniques worked well within the narrow context of testing but they were less effective in the much more open circumstances of the field, when I could be hearing all kinds of sound.

Only learning the context of the playlist: This brings me on to the final problem of both learning the context and learning within a context. Recognition of anything is contextual. If I had heard a familiar British bird in America, I would probably have been momentarily confused because I wouldn’t have been expecting to hear it and would probably have assumed it was an American species that made similar sounds. Admittedly, I didn’t have these difficulties with the numerous House Sparrows I encountered but I knew from guide books that I would be hearing them. But as well as needing to learn the context so that we might anticipate what we encounter, we learn within a context and listening to a playlist, even one that is played randomly, is a different context to the field. The playlist is limited and closed and this means that it only presents certain possibilities. The field is open to manifold possibilities, even if some are more possible than others. These different contexts of listening present different challenges and learning a song within the context of the playlist test is usually more straightforward than knowing what it is in the field. For a start the playlist is based around certain characteristics, e.g. descending songs, so the listener doesn’t have to take so much notice of that characteristic when listening because it’s already a given. The fields where we listen to real birds are vastly more complex and open-ended, although this complexity does at least provide for a lot more clues.

As I mentioned earlier, all of these problems can be countered to an extent by learning over a longer period, becoming more skilled at mnemonics, and by developing more refined techniques. The problem of the limited context of the playlist could, for example, be countered by placing birds on a range of playlists (e.g. habitat or area based ones) and also by testing yourself against all of the recordings in your collection, rather than just within a short playlist.

This process raises a number of questions about the stages of learning and what is it to ‘know’ a sound. In most parts of Britain, I think I know the sounds of birds very well. I don’t often encounter sounds that I can’t put a name to and in many cases I can ‘hear’ the sounds of a species in my head on demand. If I think of a Robin singing, I can hear pretty accurately what it sounds like in my ‘mind’s ear’. In America, I didn’t know the sounds as well as that. If I ‘knew’ a sound it was a less confident kind of knowing. In many of the successful examples I describe above, I still felt that I needed to see the bird to be sure I was hearing what I thought I was. I also found that there were some sounds I knew one day but had forgotten by the next. In only a few cases can I replay the song in my head. In most cases, I only know songs in a contingent way: I know them when I hear them. But ultimately, any kind of knowing is somewhat contingent on circumstances and learning through recordings does not mean that the sounds of the birds are ‘known’ but that one knows what to listen for.

May 5, 2008

How to learn bird sounds at home

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 11:50 am

Learning new bird sounds is difficult for most people, and I don’t regard myself as any better than anyone else despite having been birding for most of my life. I was interested, then, to read this article by Tom Stephenson on Surfbirds about techniques he’s developed to learn bird sounds prior to going on foreign trips. I often find that when I go abroad I can learn to identify birds visually quite rapidly, particularly if I’ve leafed through the field guides beforehand. But learning sounds takes much longer. I can normally pick up a few each day but it’s a struggle and I end up spending much of the trip bewildered by an array of unfamiliar new sounds.

Soon I’m going to be spending a short time in North America and there are other trips abroad scheduled for later in the year, so I was keen to try out these techniques to see if they would help me learn at least some of the songs and calls before I go away. North America is a good place to start because I know a lot of the birds visually but don’t know the songs of many species (I’ve mainly been to America in autumn and winter previously). Also, although it’s very good for birds, it doesn’t have huge numbers of species, so the list of sounds to learn is shorter than it would be for the tropics.

The technique has a number of stages. The first is to gather together the recordings you need, which involves working out what species are likely where you are going as well as downloading, and possibly editing, the recordings. Next you need to make up various playlists of 5-10 species where the calls or songs have similar qualities. This is where the learning really starts and I found it quite a challenge to come up with these. What qualities do you select for the playlists? Pitch (high or low, ascending, descending, staying the same)? Repetition (the same phrase over and over, repetition then variation as with a song thrush)? The number of notes in the song (two, three or four note)? The pattern of sound (rambling and continuous, regular pauses)? The quality of the sound (buzzy, rattling, ‘electrical’, shrill)? Of course a lot of sounds have more than one of these qualities, which complicates things a bit, but trying to figure out the playlists is useful because it requires that you listen actively and systematically to the recordings. I’ve used pretty much all of the above qualities in making playlists, but I still think I need to work on it more, especially with the many rather similar high-pitched songs of birds like warblers.

The next stage is to come up with mnemonics that help you to link the sound to the bird. Sometimes this is relatively easy, for example when the name is onomatopoeic, but Stephenson recommends coming up with ways of linking sound and name through visualisation. The visualisation should ideally link name, sound and the appearance of the bird. For example, least flycatcher, a small American songbird, has a song that sounds a bit like it’s saying ‘titchy’, which links rather straightforwardly to its name and its small size. I imagine a small person saying ‘titchy’ when I hear the sound.

The final part of the technique involves repeatedly testing yourself on each playlist by using the random play function of your media player. This is an aspect of the technique that technology has really helped to facilitate. What’s important here is that the random element enables the mnemonic techniques to be tested actively. This active approach to remembering runs through the whole process and I think this is helpful for learning and remembering in general. Passive learning, whilst it sometimes seems popular in our nation’s schools, is rarely the most effective way of developing skills. The technique also highlights the relationship between hearing and seeing, because it’s through visualisation that the sounds are remembered. One of the important aspects of visualisation is that it tends to be much more instantaneous than the way we remember sounds. For example, when I hear the beginning of a song I often have to ‘play it through’ in my mind to try to remember what it is. Visualisation is, hopefully, much quicker.

I’ll update on my progress after I’ve been to America.

April 11, 2008

Project update

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:38 am

There haven’t been too many updates to the blog lately so I thought I’d mention a few things I’ve been up to.


Some of you may have noticed my name cropping up in one or two publications lately. The May issue of BBC Wildlife features an article by me on responses to bird sounds, including a few excerpts from the stories people have sent me. I was also featured in last weekend’s edition of the Sunday Telegraph, including a few short notes on responses to particular birds that I, mostly, wrote. A lot of the current media interest seems to stem from the popularity of bird song radio and there may be a few other ‘media appearances’ in the near future, which I’ll keep you up to date on.

Writing and presentations

I’m currently working on an academic paper, the first to come from this project, which is drawn primarily from the hundreds of stories, experiences and thoughts sent to me through this website. I’ll be presenting versions of this paper on a couple of occasions in the near future. On Tuesday 22nd April I’ll be giving the departmental seminar in anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ll also be presenting at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at Columbia University, New York City on Saturday 24th May in the session ‘Mundane Ideals’. Whilst I’m in America I’ll also be meeting with bird sound researchers at Cornell and Indiana, as well as hopefully listening to a few interesting birds.

Teaching and learning bird sound identification

One of the main aspects of the research is to look into how people make distinctions between the sounds of birds and how they come to put names to what they’re hearing. As well as considering my own ways of doing this, I’m going to be teaching people bird sound identification during the spring. If you live in the Aberdeen area and are interested in participating then feel free to get in touch. I’ll be saying more about what I’m learning and hoping to learn through this process over the coming weeks and months.


Contributions to the project are still more than welcome. You can send your experiences to me via the ‘Contribute’ page. I’m conscious that I haven’t used any of these contributions in the blog and so I’ll be rectifying that over the coming weeks. Enormous thanks again to everyone who has sent their experiences in.

November 19, 2007

A bird sound biography

Filed under: biographical — Tags: , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:33 pm

Like all good anthropologists, I’d like to begin this blog with a bit of biographical context. Since the Listening to Birds project is all about the role that bird sounds play in people’s lives, it seems prudent to start by describing my own experiences.

I’ve been interested in birds for most of my life and began birding, in a fairly concerted fashion, at the age of six. Like many beginners, I learnt to recognise most birds visually long before I learnt their vocalisations. After I’d been birding a year or two, I recall the leader of the local Young Ornithologist’s Club (YOC) group asking the members to write down how many species of bird they knew by sound. I’ve no idea how many I came up with, but I remember finding it rather difficult to do, even though by that stage I knew lots of birds by sight.

My earliest memories of bird sounds were of easy to recognise species: the song of the Cuckoo, the thrum of a Mute Swan’s wings beating, a mewling Buzzard on holidays to Devon and the electric ‘peewit’ of Lapwings. It took me longer to learn the more complex songs of even the most familiar of songbirds but a few were relatively easy to pick up. On my walk home from school across an area of rough grassland I used to hear Skylarks singing high up above and would strain my neck to catch sight of them. The Skylark was the emblem of my school, which was in the new town part of Northampton. We were told that when the new housing was built on farmland in the early 1970s the Skylarks disappeared from most areas and so it came to represent the great, but rather ambivalent, change that had taken place in the landscape. There were still some around when I was a kid, usually in areas set aside for building, but these days they’ve disappeared as a breeding bird and I’d have to travel further a field to hear their song ascending above me.

It wasn’t until my teens that I started to pay more attention to the sounds I was hearing. A pivotal moment came in October half-term, perhaps in the mid-1980s when I decided to have a look for two birds that I very rarely seemed to see: Siskin and Redpoll. I suspected that both of these small finches were reasonably common around where I lived. Other people seemed to notice them quite regularly but I didn’t. It seemed that knowing their calls was very helpful in locating and identifying them – particularly with birds flying overhead, which could be difficult to identify visually. So I set off to look around the extensive areas of trees that had been planted when the new town was built. Many of which were alders and Redpolls and Siskins both feed on alder mast during the autumn and winter. I hoped that by checking areas where the trees grew I would find the birds. The results were almost instantly successful and that week I saw both species almost daily and sometimes in large numbers. Some were feeding in the trees but there were more bounding overhead in tight flocks, and the only thing giving away their identity were their now very distinctive calls: the ringing ‘tsu’ of the Siskins and the rhythmic, buzzing ‘chi-chi’ of the Redpolls. What I realised from this experience was that learning bird sounds would help me to see and identify more birds, and as a birder who wanted to do just that, it was a lesson well-heeded.

A great leap forward both in my skill at recognising bird sounds and in my sensitivity to them came when I went to work in my late teens at a nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen in the Norfolk Broads. Now it became my job to be able to identify different birds and to recognise different types of call because I needed to do this to help with monitoring bird populations on the reserve. Along with many of the other trainees who worked there at the time, I was very aware of my inability to recognise the songs of some quite familiar birds. What was interesting was that in some cases I had never even heard the species sing. A good example was Treecreeper, a woodland bird I was very accustomed to seeing. I also knew the dry wispy call note but had never heard one sing. I listened to recordings and heard a sound that was totally unfamiliar, a sort of thin but jaunty twitter. Perhaps they don’t sing very often, I wondered, but as I began to survey the birds on the reserve during the spring I heard them all over the place. It wasn’t so much that I’d never heard Treecreepers singing before but that I hadn’t noticed hearing them. Hearing, it became apparent to me then, wasn’t so much a passive reception of sound by the ears but an active process that involved attending to aspects of the world around me. Much of what I heard was what I listened for.

During my time at Strumpshaw, I did lots of survey work in the woods and marshes and this meant that many of the birds stayed out of sight but not out of earshot. The sounds of those places were remarkable: the geese flying out of their roost to graze the marshes at dawn, the Tawny Owls hooting and screeching, the strange squeak and gurgle of a Woodcock on its ‘roding’ display flight, the shotgun burst of a Cetti’s Warbler, the sky filling with noisy Rooks and Jackdaws on their way to roost, the woodland birds finding their voice after a long winter and, above all, the incredible sound of a reed bed full of warblers on an early morning in May.

After a few months learning, I started to teach other staff how to identify bird sounds for doing survey work and was impressed at how quickly most people seemed to pick it up. I’d never really been taught bird identification myself. No one had ever taken me aside and helped me to learn in a formal and concerted way. I had always just ‘picked things up’ as and when I needed, sometimes following the example of others or getting pointers from them but never anything more than that. But, eventually, I’d learnt how to listen and ever since then I’ve made a point of paying more attention to bird sounds. When I travel abroad I still struggle to learn sounds as quickly as I can learn to recognise unfamiliar birds by sight. Perhaps this is because the sort of preparation I do is mostly based on looking through the pages of a field guide. But I gradually come to recognise plenty of sounds and can still remember a few of them: the shrill cries of Killdeer in America, the sewing machine hum of River Warblers in Poland, the thin wheeze of Red-throated Pipits in Turkey, the alarm clock call of a Crested Barbet in South Africa and the ‘dropping bomb’ sound of a Sharpbill in Brazil.

So this is a brief summary of my own experiences, but they raise many of the questions that will be under scrutiny during the Listening to Birds project. Why do we find bird sounds so difficult to learn and remember? What can make it easier to learn them? Why are some sounds easier to remember than others? How do we come to notice bird sounds in the first place? How do certain sounds come to evoke time, place and season? I’ll be exploring these and other questions through the research I’ll be doing over the next few years and will be posting my thoughts as I go along. Your comments and contributions are most welcome.

The University of Aberdeen