by Marcie Cuff
Can you hear it? Spring has finally sprung! It’s time to dust off your field guides, head outside and get a good look and listen at who is calling. There are over 10,000 species of birds in the world, and about 925 have been sighted in North America. Here in the Hudson Valley, there are just over 100 commonly breeding species sharing our backyards with us.
Some birds are found year-round here. These rugged resident species include the Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Tree Sparrow, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Cedar Waxwing, and the Blue Jay. Migratory birds start to arrive in mid-March, with the first wave of hardy birds like the American Robin, Common Grackle and the Red-winged Blackbird. As the month progresses, the Pine Warbler, Eastern Phoebe and the Golden-crowned Kinglet join them. Seasonal birds fly in throughout April and May.
With practice, these birds can be identified by sight. But there is something to be said about “seeing” a bird with closed eyes. A really good birder can identify a species just by hearing their call or song. The start of May is the ideal time to start listening to birdsong, since the outdoor bird “orchestra” is filled with mating calls. Some Westchester species like the Cedar Waxwing have just one single simple call. Others, like the Brown Thrasher, can sing over 2,000 songs. No kidding.
Learning bird songs takes patience, perseverance, persistence and a great deal of practice. Ideally, while in training (which could literally, if you are like me, take a lifetime), you should befriend (or perhaps marry) a spirited warmhearted nature-lover whom you can team up with.
My birding advice:
• Learn one or two common local birds first. Use these calls and songs as the standard for new ones that you hear.
• Imitate what you hear. If you can, count the notes and sketch the bird and the sound.
• Use gimmicks. If a bird sounds like a perky R2D2, then take note of it. You can use your own gimmicks, putting words to a bird’s song, or you can use the widely accepted ones—called mnemonics.
• If you are surrounded by birdsong, listen to one instrument, not the entire orchestra. Pick out the piccolo, then the oboe, the cello, the bass, etc. Find individual notes from each.
• Use field guides and online resources like Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Song Mnemonics, Nature Songs and What Bird.
• Write everything down and keep it close.
Why? Birding provides a fantastic opportunity for us to connect with the natural world. It allows a deeper understanding of habitat requirements and intra- and inter-species relationships, provides an even playing field—with grandparents, parents and kids starting at the same level—actively listening and working together for a common purpose—and it requires no fancy terminology, musical training or conceptual framework. Birding puts a teeny, feathered face on the world outside us, and helps foster a sense of unity with nature. Most importantly, birding can stimulate curiosity and passion like you’ve never seen before.
Marcie Cuff lives in Irvington, works at the NY Botanical Garden, and is the author of the book “This Book Was a Tree”(Perigee Books). For more ideas like this, look for her book at any bookstore, or visit her blog Mossy at http://mossymossy.com.
Common Local Bird Mnemonics:
Chirping trill (softer than a sparrow) – Dark-eyed Junco
Po-ta-to-chip! Po-ta-to-chip! – American Goldfinch
Chik-a-dee-dee-dee – Black-capped Chickadee
Yenk, yenk yenk (with a bad cold) – White-breasted Nuthatch
Cheeva, cheeva, cheeva, cheeva – Tufted Titmouse
Teakettle teakettle teakettle! – Carolina Wren
Downward whinny – Downy Woodpecker
Cheer, cheer……woop, woop, woop – Northern Cardinal
Zeee-zeee,zeee (high-pitched crickets) – Cedar Waxwing
Jeer! – Blue Jay
Cheer-a-lee, cheer-up…. American Robin
Sounds like a rusty gate – Common Grackle
Conk-a-ree – Red-winged Blackbird
Chirping trill (slower than a Junco) – Pine Warbler
Fee-bee – Eastern Phoebe
Tsee! (Repeated and piercingly high) – Golden-crowned Kinglet