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Letter from Skunk Hollow: Digital tools open the world of bird song to anyone

As the smartphone played an audio clip, a western meadowlark swooped in for a closer look.

Technology is making it easier for anyone to distinguish, say, a western meadowlark from an oriole.

Toward the end of a recent afternoon, Sallie and I were strolling around a former farm near our place in western Wisconsin. A lovely spread of a couple hundred acres is being converted to a large-lot housing development, or was.

No homes have been built as yet along the few ribbons of blacktop that loop through the rolling pastureland, following the ridges and offering a series of rustic panoramas.

So for the last four years this parcel has been a sort of rural park for walking, biking and especially – from Sallie’s point of view – for birding. I rarely go without a pedometer; she never goes without binoculars.

Sallie is experienced in birdwatching; I am such a newbie as to be nearly a nonbirder. Like most of my uninformed kind, I tend to think of birds as tree-dwellers or waterfowl, and of birding as a woodland or lakeshore pursuit.

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But of course numerous species prefer to nest in the grasses and low brush, and on this afternoon the air was filled with a riot of trills and chirps and metallic chatter from birds unseen. I tried counting their different calls and stopped, overwhelmed, at about eight.

And then I spotted a bright yellow breast in a small tree: “Hey, Sallie, what’s an oriole doing out here on the prairie?”

“Oh-OH-OOOOHHH,” she replied, in the distinctive rising tones of Sallie training her binocs on a standout specimen.  “That’s no oriole – I think it’s a meadowlark! What do you think?”

Well, that was just a courtesy question, but to be helpful I pulled out my smartphone and searched for meadowlark images as she continued the long-distance inspection.

Presently I learned that there are both eastern and western meadowlarks, whose differences in markings are slight. “Best distinguished by voice,” say the Audubon guides. …

But wait! The Stokes recordings of birdsongs were in our iTunes library and, therefore, perhaps also in the palm of my hand!

A couple of clicks later we were listening to a pair of highly dissimilar vocalizations, first the plain-jane easterner, then the elaborate westerner.

And as the westerner’s song came out of the phone, our meadowlark came out of his tree. He zoomed at our heads like a bluejay or red-winged blackbird rousting an intruder, circled us twice and returned to his perch.

“I guess that settles it – he’s western,” Sallie said, with eyes wide.

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 “And how cool was that?” I replied, realizing that a 30-year dream of learning to recognize birds by their calls might now be within reach.

Birdsong in the age of vinyl

I can’t say exactly why I’ve had this yearning, apart from an abiding interest in knowing more about the natural world, but I do know precisely when and where it took root.

It was in the early autumn of 1981 and I was in the Siskiyou National Forest with a veterinarian friend I’ll call Brad, because that’s his name. After several days of Oregon drizzle we had a glorious, sunny morning and were fishing mountain streams without success.

Also without waders, which meant constant scrambling on rugged slopes to follow the streams. Tired now, we were sitting in a shady spot by a quiet pool, unpacking lunches.

“You know,” he said, “this would be a pretty nice place if it wasn’t for all these damned birds chattering away.”

His grin told me this was irony, and then he closed his eyes and began to listen – really listen – to the cacophony rolling back and forth through the fir forest. One by one he identified the birdsongs, then told me how he picked out a single voice from the chorus, based on the pattern of rising or falling tones, swelling or shrinking volume, repeated notes and phrases. …

Awed and envious, I wanted to know how he came to this ability.

Oh, he said, over the years he’d spent many hours listening to field guides published on LPs and cassette tapes, making his own tapes, comparing tapes, taking a class or two, making notes during hikes with birders more expert than he.

Well, I didn’t have the time to follow that trail, then or since. So I put the whole notion aside, filed but not forgotten.

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Field guide in a smartphone

A few days after our meadowlark encounter, I set aside some time to build a playlist of the Stokes tracks for birds I know to be regulars in our woods at Skunk Hollow.

The very first selection answered a question I’d been carrying for a long time: Which species has the bluesy, high-low call that sounds just like the two-note signature of Miles Davis’ “So What”?

It’s a black-capped chickadee,  audible nearly everywhere, and this realization led to another: Recognizing birdsongs probably isn’t going to be that difficult for me or for most other folks who take it up with the help of modern technology.

If you can listen to a piece of music and tell a saxophone from a trumpet, or John Lennon’s voice from John Mayer’s, then you can probably tell a chickadee from a robin just as readily. If you can distinguish a melody line of the Beatles’ from one of Bach’s, you won’t find it daunting to identify a meadowlark by voice.

But remembering melodies, whether by Brubeck or a Baltimore oriole – that’s another matter. And what made it much, much harder back in Brad’s time and until recently was that the birds were performing, without a program, in places where it was difficult to bring audio reference materials along.

Also, it’s difficult for most people to reduce birdsong to useful shorthand descriptions that can be carried afield. Not all birdsong is as translatable as the barred owl’s “Who cooks for YOOOUUUU?”

But now there are numerous smartphone apps and other digital field guides available to the birder; helpful reviews can be found here and here.

Personally, I’m content for the moment to carry .mp3s from the Stokes guide in the phone and a well-thumbed guide in book format, from Audubon or Peterson, in the daypack. Sallie is practiced in using their identification keys, and with her on the visuals and me on the audio, we make up one complete birder.

Also worth a visit is the Macaulay Library of Cornell University’s ornithology lab, where birdsongs (including the meadowlark links above) are just a part of what is said to be “the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings.” Access to the recordings is free, and there’s even advice on making your own.

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And for an interesting look at better ways of describing and shorthanding birdsong in language, you might check out  this article in the American Birding Association’s magazine.