Translating the language of birds.
Many hobbyists who look for wild birds call themselves birders rather than birdwatchers This is a list of the world's greatest birdwatchers, based on the number of species of birds seen. Depending on the taxonomic viewpoint, there are about 8,800–10,200 living bird species. . In addition to being able to identify species by plumage, skilled birders tend to be familiar with bird songs and calls. Vocalizations sometimes provide the only reliable information for identifying a species in the field.
Birders who are not musically gifted (including me) face the difficult task of learning and remembering vocalizations for hundreds of species. The challenge is daunting daunt
tr.v. daunt·ed, daunt·ing, daunts
To abate the courage of; discourage. See Synonyms at dismay.
[Middle English daunten, from Old French danter, from Latin because a particular species may utter multiple territorial songs, contact calls and regional dialects. An effective learning technique is to translate the vocalizations of a species into familiar words or phrases. Just as many people cannot remember lyrics to popular songs without singing the melody, many birders cannot remember bird songs and calls without thinking of mnemonic phrases. Because of the difficulty of translating sounds into words, birdsong mnemonics mnemonics /mne·mon·ics/ (ne-mon´iks) improvement of memory by special methods or techniques.mnemon´ic
A system to develop or improve the memory. can feature vastly different (and creative) interpretations of the same song.
Some birds are named for their vocalizations. One of the most familiar is the cock named after the first syllable of its song. The common cuckoo of Eurasia and Africa is named for the song used in countless clocks. (The song of the roadrunner, one of America's indigenous cuckoos, is a similar coo coo coo coo coo coo, not meep meep as in the cartoons). Among the many species named for their vocalizations are the boobook boobook
a small spotted Australian brown owl owl, chachalaca Cha`cha`la´ca
n. 1. (Zool.) The Texan guan (Ortalis vetula).
Noun 1. chachalaca , chickadee chickadee (chĭk`ədē'), small North American bird of the titmouse family. The black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus), lively and gregarious, is a permanent resident over most of its range in the East. , chiffchaff chiff·chaff
A small European warbler (Phylloscopus collybita) with yellowish-green plumage.
[Imitative of its song. , chowchilla, curlew, dickcissel dickcissel
American passerine (Spiza americana, family Fringillidae) bird that eats seeds and breeds in weedy fields of the central U.S. Most dickcissels winter in northern South America, but some stray to the Atlantic coast. , hoopoe hoopoe (h`p, –pō), common name for a shy, solitary, Old World woodland bird, Upupa epops. , kiskadee, pauraque The Pauraque, Nyctidromus albicollis, is a nightjar. It breeds in the warmer parts of the New World from southern Texas to northern Argentina. It is the only bird in the genus Nyctidromus. , pipit pipit, common name for a group of chiefly Eurasian and African birds that together with the wagtails constitute a subfamily of songbirds related to the Old World warblers and thrushes. Pipits are trim, slender birds with thin, pointed bills. , towhee towhee (tō`hē, tōhē`, t`hē), common name for a North American bird of the family Fringillidae (finch family). , veery veery: see thrush. , whip-poor-will, willet, and wompoo pigeon.
Ornithologists classify birds and decide on scientific names for species, while ornithology organizations decide on accepted common names. Non-ornithologists often get to know species from vocalizations and use songs or calls to create colloquial names. The willet, which was named for its song, also is known by the colloquial names bill-willie, pill-willet, pill-will-willet, and will-willet. In Australia, a colloquial name for the magpie-lark is peewit.
Many bird names describe a vocalization vocalization
to make a vocal sound; a form of communication. Studies of feline vocalization have identified murmur, vowel and strained intensity patterns.
excessive vocalization rather than represent the actual sound. Examples include the laughing gull, whistling kite, piping plover, whooping crane, chipping sparrow, plaintive cuckoo, melodious blackbird, musician wren, snoring rail, and dark chanting goshawk The Dark Chanting Goshawk (Melierax metabates) is a bird of prey in the family Accipitridae. The Accipitridae also include many other diurnal raptors such as kites, eagles and harriers. . Cisticolas, which are small, brownish songbirds found mostly in Africa, are accomplished vocalists. The adjectives used in their species names include bubbling, chattering, chirping chirp
A short, high-pitched sound, such as that made by a small bird or an insect.
intr.v. chirped, chirp·ing, chirps
To make a short, high-pitched sound. , churring, croaking, piping, rattling, sifting, singing, tinkling tin·kle
v. tin·kled, tin·kling, tin·kles
1. To make light metallic sounds, as those of a small bell.
2. Informal To urinate.
1. , rink-rink, trilling, wailing, whistling, and zitting.
The Northern mockingbird mocks and mimics the songs of other species, as reflected in its scientific name, Mimus polyglottos. Babblers are named for their babbling, trillers for their trilling, whistlers for their whistling, screamers for their screaming and chats for their chattering. The mourning dove is named for its mournful cooing, but the mourning warbler is named for its funereal plumage. The song of the Eastern whipbird resembles a whipcrack. Bellbirds and the bell miner sound like ringing bells. The trumpeter swan trumpets. The cicadabird sounds like a cicada cicada (sĭkā`də), large, noise-producing insect of the order Homoptera, with a stout body, a wide, blunt head, protruding eyes, and two pairs of membranous wings. . The saw-whet owl sounds like a saw being sharpened. The call of the gray catbird in America sounds like a mewing eat, while the unrelated catbirds in Australia sound like alley eats in heat. Some nouns of assemblage are based on bird vocalizations, such as a chattering of choughs and a murmuration Mur`mur`a´tion
n. 1. The act of murmuring; a murmur.
Murmuration of starlings: a flock—Lydgate, 1470.
Noun 1. of starlings.
Not all bird names based on vocalizations accurately reflect how the birds sound. Warblers in America generally do not warble. They were named for their physical similarity to unrelated European warblers that warble. Some birds are named for a vocalization of a species in the same genus or family, even though they themselves do not make such vocalizations. Not all cuckoos say coo-coo, just as not all birds called kingfishers hunt for fish. A fly-catcher called the Eastern wood-pewee says pee-a-wee. But in Central America, the closely related greater pewee sings Jo-se Ma-RI-a. The Eastern phoebe, another flycatcher flycatcher, common name for various members of the Old World family Muscicapidae, insectivorous songbirds including the kingbirds, phoebes, and pewees. Flycatchers vary in color from drab to brilliant, as in the crested monarch and paradise flycatchers of Asia and , spits out its phoe-be song. But the song of the closely related black phoebe sounds more like pee-wee. In Australia, the olive-backed oriole sings or-i-ole, but this is a coincidence that has nothing to do with the bird's name.
The translation of a song into words may be influenced by the location and culture of those listening. The white-throated sparrow is common in many parts of North America. A familiar interpretation of its song is Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. In Canada, the interpretation is more likely to be Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada. The song of the short-billed pigeon, found in Central and South America, sounds like who-COOKS-for-YOU to people speaking English and dos TON-tos SON ('they are two fools') to Spanish speakers. Dos tontos son is the Spanish name for the species.
The use of familiar words or phrases in some mnemonics involves a sacrifice of accuracy so that birders can more easily remember the songs. David Sibley's North American Bird Guide portrays one of the songs of the black-throated green warbler as zoooo zeee zo zo zeet. Richard Walton's recordings of North American birdsongs describe it as trees, trees, murmuring trees. Sibley's description is more accurate but harder to remember. Walton describes the slow song of the black-throated blue warbler as beer beer beer beeee. Some birders portray it as I'm so la-zy. The latter, while less precise, helps birders to remember more easily the slow, lazy quality of the song.
The beer uttered by the black-throated blue warbler is one of many food and drink references in birdsong. The olive-sided flycatcher, which is in the same genus as the pewees, says Quick, free beer! or Quick, three beers! The song of the white-eyed vireo vireo, small, migratory songbird of the New World. Some species nest in the United States, but the majority are tropical. Vireos (also called greenlets) range from 4 to 6 1/2 in. (10.2–16. is sometimes portrayed as Pick up the beer check quick. For the nonalcohol crowd, there are the Eastern towhee, who tells us Drink your tea; the Carolina wren, who loudly sings teakettle, teakettle, teakettle; and the song sparrow, whose complex song Richard Walton describes as Maids maids maids pick up the tea kettle kettle kettle. The flight call of the American goldfinch sometimes is portrayed as potato chip. The barred owl hoots Madame, who cooks for you? One guide to North American birds <onlyinclude> This list of North American birds is a comprehensive listing of all the bird species known from the North American continent north of Mexico. </onlyinclude> describes the song of the Acadian flycatcher as "an explosive peet-suh" (perhaps topped with hearts of napalm).
In Southern Queensland, naturalist Glen Threlfo helped me to learn the songs of three common Australian "walking" birds in the rainforest. He said the brown pigeon asks Didja walk? Didja walk? The Wonga pigeon says walk walk walk walk walk. And the loud but elusive noisy pitta screams walk to work. Richard Walton uses a similar teaching technique to Threlfo's; he groups similar vocalizations and explains the differences. The American robin has the clear pleasant song cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily. Walton describes the scarlet tanager tanager (tăn`əjər), any of the small, migratory perching birds of the family Thraupidae, chiefly of the tropical New World. Only five species migrate to North America; of these the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea as sounding like "a robin with a sore throat." The tanager's song has a similar length and rhythm to the robin's but sounds burry burry
said of wool when it contains plant burrs, the adherent seed pods, usually of Medicago polymorpha. .
A familiar characterization of birdsong is tweet, as reflected in the cartoon character Tweety Pie and the lyrics to the song "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street." Few little birdies actually say tweet tweet tweet. One that does is the prothonotary warbler, which became a topic of controversy during the Alger Hiss trial in the 1950s. Its song sounds like tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet. The yellow warbler's song comes close with sweet sweet sweet a little more sweet.
Bird vocalizations sometimes include a familiar name. The Northern bobwhite bobwhite, common name for an American henlike bird of the family Phasianidae, which also includes the pheasant and the partridge. The eastern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is about 10 in. (25 cm) long. was named for its two-note bob-white call. In Costa Rica, I heard the three-note call of the spotted-bellied bobwhite that sounds like rob-ert-white. The California quail screams Chicago, while the long-tailed manakin says Toledo. The chestnut-sided warbler says see see see see Miss Beech-er. The gray-eheeked fulvetta sometimes says sweet sweet Georgie. The white-crowned sparrow is sad that Poor JoJo missed his bus. If JoJo missed a school bus, he might be chastised by his teacher, who is in the ovenbird's song: teacher, TEACHER, TEACHER. The song starts softly and becomes loud.
Some bird vocalizations sound like the melodies of popular songs. In Australia, part of the song of the grey butcherbird sounds like the melody portion of Little Green Apples with the lyrics "And if that's not lovin' me ..." The three-note song of the spotted pardalote sounds like the first three notes of XTC's song Melt the Guns (although some Australians claim the bird is saying tough titty).
Birds sometimes seem to be talking to birders. The red-eyed vireo says Here I am. Where are you?; the statement and question reflect the two distinct parts of the song. The song of Australia's green catbird The Green Catbird, Ailuroedus crassirostris is a species of bowerbird found on subtropical forests along the east coast of Australia, from southeastern Queensland to southern New South Wales. is the ungrammatical Heeere I aaaare. The Swainson's warbler says look look look look at me. The black-breasted wood quail asks Where are you? Where are you? while the common yellowthroat asks Which is it? Which is it? Which is it? A rufous-browed peppershrike I heard in Costa Rica seemed to say I'M-A-RU-FOUS-PEP-PER-SHRIKE.
The Skutch and Stiles guide to Costa Rican birds describes the song of the male stripe-breasted wren as who's to SEE/me, little me/who's to SEE/me, little me. The slashes represent places where the male slows down to allow the female to join in a duet. Similarly, the male riverside wren sings victory/we-do-it/victory/we-do-it. To celebrate, the king rail sometimes says hip hip hurrah/ In Australia, the grey whistler sometimes says TIC TAC 1. TAC - Translator Assembler-Compiler. For Philco 2000.
2. TAC - Terminal Access Controller. TOE, while the MacLeay's honeyeater screams a free TV.
Some birds make comments that sound negative or antisocial. The common potoo Po`too´
n. 1. (Zool.) A large South American goatsucker (Nyctibius grandis). whines POO-or me, O, O, O, O. The inca dove says no hope. The brown quail complains not faair, not faair, while the marbled wood-quail is a killjoy kill·joy
One who spoils the enthusiasm or fun of others.
a person who spoils other people's pleasure
Noun 1. , saying burst the bubble, burst the bubble. In Australia, the little friarbird sometimes protests Ow, ow, don't pull my hair-air. The helmeted friarbird says poor devil, while America's red-headed woodpecker says queer, queer. In tropical America, the bright-rumped attila says beat-it, beat-it, beat-it naow. Australia's little wattlebird threatens fetch the gun, fetch the gun. The late Graham Pizzey, author of the most comprehensive field guide of Australian birds, portrays the song of the crested shrike-tit as knock at the door--whack/Once when I was staying at Graham's home, a Willie-wagtail sang outside my bedroom window around 3 A.M. and seemed to say I'm trying to an-NOY you. For pure negativity, one cannot beat the fish crow, who likes to say uh-uh.
When words fail, birders resort to analogous sounds to describe vocalizations. The gang-gang cockatoo and Montezuma oropendola sound like creaking hinges. The black-and-white warbler sounds like a squeaky wheel, while the field sparrow sounds like a ping-pong ball bouncing on a table. The pine siskin makes a sound resembling a needle dragged across a phonograph record, while the rufous whistler can sound like a stuck record. The female emu booms like the drum at a college football game. The sooty owl sounds like a falling bomb. The spangled drongo sounds like an alarm clock buzzer. The sharp-tailed sparrow sounds like a piece of hot iron plunged into cold water. Brown-headed nuthatches sound like squeeze toys, while red-breasted nuthatches sound like toy trumpets. Masked plovers sometimes sound like someone dragging a shovel across concrete. The clapper rail can sound like an old car engine, while the malleefowl The Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) is a stocky ground-dwelling Australian bird about the size of a domestic chicken (to which it is distantly related). It occupies semi-arid mallee scrub on the fringes of the relatively fertile areas of southern Australia, where it is now sounds like an accelerating sports car with a manual transmission. The eclectus parrot makes a sound like an old-fashioned car air-horn. The alarm call of noisy miners sounds like a beeping car alarm. Eastern kingbirds sound like electrical sparks. Pizzey compares the song of the pheasant coucal to water glugging from a bottle and the song of the white-tailed nightjar to an axe repeatedly striking a hollow log.
Some vocalizations resemble sounds made by people and other animals. The call of the Australian raven sounds like Phyllis Diller's laugh. European starlings make a wolf whistle. The shining bronze-cuckoo sounds like someone whistling to a dog, while the rufous piha sounds like a whistle to beckon a person. The barking owl barks like a dog. Wood ducks sound like a puppy whose foot has been trod on. The Henslow sparrow makes a weak hiccup. Bush stone-curlews wail like banshees. Pizzey likens the song of Tasmania's yellow wattlebird to coughing and vomiting. The trumpet manucode The Trumpet Manucode, Manucodia keraudrenii is a medium-sized, approximately 31cm long, bird of paradise with an elongated horn-like head tufts and loose neck feathers. The plumage is of blackish glossed blue, green and purple. sometimes sounds like he is clearing phlegm phlegm
humor effecting temperament of sluggishness. [Medieval Physiology: Hall, 130]
See : Laziness from his throat. In Costa Rica, I heard a group of prong-billed barbets whose ha-ha call in unison sounded like a Hollywood laugh track. Some penguins bray like asses. A group of Australian magpies can sound like an orchestra tuning up. The nightingale wren sounds like he is randomly blowing a reed instrument, while the flight call of the cotton pygmygoose sounds like someone playing a kazoo. The rainbow bee-eater sounds like the frequent whistles blown by referees during Olympic waterpolo matches. The tawny frogmouth The Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus strigoides is an Australian variety of frogmouth, a type of bird found throughout the Australian mainland, Tasmania and southern New Guinea. The Tawny Frogmouth is often thought to be a species of owl, but they are related to nightjars. utters a monotonous oom oom oom ..., resembling a Buddhist chant. A call of the marbled frogmouth sounds like the woo woo woo woo noises made by Curly of the Three Stooges.
One cannot begin to understand a Beethoven symphony by reading a pile of music books and not listening to the actual work. Likewise, one cannot learn about bird vocalizations by reading mnemonics and not hearing the actual birds. Shelley wrote in his famous poem about a skylark, "I have never heard praise of love or wine that panted forth a flood of rapture so divine." I doubt Shelley would have been so effusive had he merely read about the skylark's song in the new Collins guide to European birds: "A variety of calls, all rather dry rolling sounds, e.g., 'prreet', 'prrlyh', 'prrut-ut,' and 'prreeh-e.' Sometimes, often when anxious, a more piping 'p(r)eeh.'"
Birds use their language to communicate information about territory, sexual availability, threats, and other aspects of their existence. In The Minds of Birds, Alexander Skutch theorizes that birds have an aesthetic sense and may sing for the delight of hearing themselves. The language of birds is marvelously complex and can be both beautiful and entertaining. I'm glad I have learned something about this language so that I can eavesdrop on so many remarkable conversations.
[William Young is a writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia. His other interests include anagrams and limericks.]