I was crossing the parking lot at one of those big stores when I hear “Na-ah.” Sitting up on a light pole was a fish crow, bobbing up and down going “na-ah, na-ah” over and over again. “Hey look! I save a lot of money by going here,” I said. The crow just went on saying “na-ah,” but now he was joined by other crows. “Well, I do,” I laughed.
Low and behold, I hear someone laughing with me in that parking lot. The laughing gull had just landed on a pole nearby. He was stretching his neck out as far as he could, then throwing his head back to laugh.
The next thing I hear sounds like an argument. “But, but meeee …” Right on the tail of that phrase, there was a counter “but, but meeeee…” Glancing over to my left, I spot two boat-tailed grackles arguing on top of an old Toyota. Bills pointed to the sky, slapping their wing on their backs, these sleek iridescent blue-black males were showing off, doing their best to make a bronzy smaller female look at them. But she had food to get and so did I.
I ducked into the door of the store and away from that cacophony of song to the mechanical sounds of shopping carts and beeping checkout scanners.
Sound is all around us. At this time of year, birds are singing to mark territories and attract a mate. There are several challenges we birders face in learning birdsong. Hearing these songs is the first challenge. Birdsong is produced in birds by the syrinx, which is a boxlike membranous or bony chamber at the lower part of the windpipe. This resonating chamber is a complex area of elastic vibrating membranes, which are capable of alternating the tension and position of the membranes and the changing the pitch of the song. This allows the birds to produce more than one sound at a time. Fascinating, isn’t it?
There is a western bird call a Varied Thrush whose voice is so captivating that people try and copy it. The song is a whistle and a note on top of each other. During my time at Point Reyes Bird Observatory, every evening we would make the bird list for the day. Down the list we would go: Western Bluebird, American Robin, Varied Thrush. When we got to the thrush, everyone did their best Varied Thrush song before answering whether they had spotted one. We all laughed. There were a couple of folks who came close but still paled in comparison to the bird itself.
The second challenge is putting the song with its singer. We can’t touch or see a song, but there are ways we can relate to these sounds to help us to remember them. Associating the song with words or things you are familiar with — such as words, phrases, or familiar sounds like laughter as I did in the first paragraph of this column — is one way.
It is a good idea to try and find the singer, too. It helps to see the bird sing its song. May is the best time to learn birdsong, for the avians are singing in conspicuous places. Birds are marking the edges of their territories; so they are moving more, and it’s easier to spot them.
When you do find the bird, spend some time listening to the song. The experience of trying to locate it also helps you remember it. While it does take time and effort to learn a bird’s call, birdsong can add so much to our lives. Just like crossing a parking lot to do a disagreeable task became more tolerable because I was listening to the birds.