Bird Watcher's General Store

Singing Birds - 08/01/03

Dear Bird Folks:

I have two questions. I woke up at 4:30 the other morning to a wall of bird songs. Birds were singing everywhere. I looked out the window but didn't see a single bird. A few hours later, at a more normal time of 7:00 AM, there were almost no birds singing. Why were the birds singing so early and why couldn't I see them? Also, what is the best way to learn bird calls?

- Phyllis, Falmouth

First Phyl,

With no offense to the Falmouth school system, I might suggest that you take a quick refresher course in mathematics. Right off the top you said you had "two questions", when you have clearly asked three. Go a head, take a quick count. There are three questions aren't there? Are you a bit tired? What happened, did you get up too early this morning, say around 4:30? Don't worry, I can probably answer all three questions at no extra charge, just don't tell the union.

As most people all ready know, even the ones in Falmouth, birds don't sing for fun or entertainment, they sing to communicate. What you may not know is that, with few exceptions, it is the males that are doing all the singing. They sing to attract a mate and to announce their territory. Each day, as soon as possible, the males want to make sure that everyone knows that they are alive and well and ready to defend their territory. What is interesting, although it may all sound the same to us, is that there is some evidence suggesting that each bird has its own unique song and other birds know it. We hear the lovely call of a robin, while other robins hear "This is Vinny, stay away and nobody gets hurt".

Another reason why birds sing at the crack of dawn is that the pre-dawn hours are usually the quietest part of the day. The sun hasn't had a chance to stir up the air. The birds' voices are a lot clearer without having to compete with the sound of the wind blowing through trees or without having to be heard above those annoying backup beeps on dump trucks.

The reason why you can't see the birds, Phyl, is because they have just gotten up and most of them are probably still singing in the shower. Also, early morning light is poor and summer foliage is thick. Even brightly colored birds like cardinals can be tough to find if they don't want to be seen.

Which brings us to the last in your string of questions. What is the best way to learn birds' calls? Well, the first thing you don't want to do is to start at 4:30 AM. Like we said, the light is bad, plus there are way too many birds singing at once. You'll be overwhelmed. In addition, who needs the hassle of explaining to the cops why you are walking through your neighborhood with binoculars at 4:30 in the morning. As you've noticed, there are fewer birds singing at 7:00 AM. I would go out at that time when there are fewer choices, the light is better and the neighbors are less paranoid.

For me, the absolute best way to learn a bird call is to choose a call that you don't know and track the bird down and don't give up until you find it. The harder the bird is to find the more likely you are to remember its song. Once you find the bird, listen carefully to its song and try to come up with your own catch phrase or rhyme to help you remember. There are tapes and CDs that are helpful too, but nothing is better or more rewarding than finding the bird and seeing it while it sings. The last way to identify a bird call is to come here and sing the bird's song to us. This might not be the best way, but it is by far the most embarrassing for you and very entertaining to us.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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