As the owner of several CD collections of bird songs, I have tried, tediously often, and with negative results, to sharpen my birding-by-ear skills sufficiently to identify the most common birds in my backyard.
The scenario unfolds the same way every time: After getting frustrated by spending 40 minutes trying to see an embarrassingly common backyard warbler whose song I couldn’t identify, I storm into the house, grab a field guide and listen to the songs of the warblers. I study a picture of each warbler as I listen to its song, its call and perhaps its distress call; then I study the pictures and the calls again, and again, until I can’t even identify the ringing telephone.
Although I bought my Peterson Field Guides Bird Songs CD 15 years ago, I haven’t listened to it as much as Lang Elliott’s The Songs of Wild Birds, which came in the mail last week. This is one fun book and CD, and I daresay it has already enhanced my birding-by-ear skills exponentially.
Not so much a comprehensive collection of bird songs as a personal selection of Elliott’s favorites, The Songs of Wild Birds mesmerized me with sounds familiar and strange, eerie, bizarre, hauntingly beautiful, ominously scary, hilariously funny. The book and the CD complement each other completely, with the text, photos and recordings riding perfectly at anchor. The book consists of 50 one-page essays arranged in spreads that feature a beautiful, full-bleed photograph of each bird discussed or, more accurately, celebrated. Each essay ends with a sonogram or two graphing the ups and downs of a bird’s song and calls, and I must say I never related at all to sonograms until I read these essays and listened to the CD; before then sonograms went in one eye and out the other (Elliott includes a one-page essay explaining sonograms).
I found in the essays a lively and informative mix of science, anecdote and ornithological lore, with poetic song descriptions by the likes of John Burroughs, Arthur Cleveland Bent and Ralph Waldo Emerson enhancing Elliott’s excellent descriptions of bird song
and behavior. Written in a relaxed, affable style, the essays include marvelous accounts of the author’s exploits as a recordist, some of them sufficiently funny that I laughed out loud.
His recording of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, for example, which he made while living in the Adirondacks, features a cacophonous riff by a bird that “used to rattle my brain each morning by drumming on a metal sign just outside my cabin. His irreverent banging is immortalized on the compact disc.” After describing the song and call of an Eastern bluebird, Elliott notes, “I remember hearing this wonderful call while playing golf one April with a friend. At the height of my backswing, I heard the tru-lee of a bluebird flying overhead. I was so affected that I completely missed the ball.
Needless to say, my friend had a tru-lee good laugh!”
While on a recording trip to Spring Pond Bog in the northern Adirondacks, Elliot captured an incredible antiphonal duet between a hermit thrush and a Swainson’s thrush— the two birds alternate their songs with the precision of classical musicians playing a sonata. The CD also has a recording of a pair of Carolina wrens performing a duet rather less precise, with the female blurting out her raspy buzz a few seconds after the male launches into his lyrical tune, superimposing her song over her mates. One of the most amazing recordings caught a quartet of Eastern screech owls performing their tremolo calls simultaneously, in pairs and one at a time. It sounds like sacred, otherworldly music that would have turned Monteverdi and Bach green with envy.
I learned from the CD that the bobcats caterwauling uncomfortably close to my tent 18 years ago were, in fact, immature great horned owls begging for food. The bizarre sonic boom of the common nighthawk’s mating ritual stunned me, as did the evening flight song of the ovenbird, which it performs at dusk or on moonlit nights. Although several of the vocalizations had me smiling or chuckling, Elliott’s recording of snoring Atlantic puffins had me doubled over in laughter. As he aptly describes it, the Atlantic puffin’s snore sounds like someone revving a chainsaw. To capture the sound, he placed a microphone in the burrow of a sleeping puffin and ran a cable hundreds of feet away to his tiny research hut. You gotta like a guy who thinks of doing stuff like that.
The Songs of Wild Birds book and CD brought these 50 birds and their songs so vividly to life that I suspect I’m actually going to remember them for a while. If you want to learn hundreds of bird songs you’ll need to consult one of the many resources available (such as www.birds.cornell.edu), but if you can content yourself with one man’s selection of world-class bird recordings made by himself and others, and with having loads of fun learning, get yourself a copy of The Songs of Wild Birds—the photographs alone are worth the price of admission.
LANG ELLIOTT also wrote Common Birds and Their Songs and Music of the Birds. For more information see his Web site: www:songsofwildbirds.com.