Before I start with my first post on 10,000 Birds as one of the new beat writers, I would like to mention how grateful I am for the opportunity, and how thankful, and that it is such an honour, and …[Silence]
Look, if you want to know how so many excellent plus one average nature writers ended up onboard 10,000 Birds, you may just want to follow this link. That’s all there is to say.
I have a young son who is nearing his third birthday. Being a zoologist, I have tried to teach him not only the words for tractor, truck, bus, and excavator (although these are clearly his current main fields of interest), but also animal names. As a matter of fact, I started very early on in his lingual development with “Taiga Bean Goose” but soon realized that domesticated animals did a better job of inducing an interest in the animal kingdom. To fully ignite the dormant zoologist within him, I made sure to point out and name all the animals we encountered on our stroller expeditions around farms and fields, and I also provided him with a description of the sounds they make. This recently struck me as somewhat peculiar. Why are the vocalizations of an animal so important that they are always the first detail children learn from their parents? It is always name and sound. Why not name and food source, or name and mode of locomotion, or name and type of roosting place? Parents will rarely – if at all – introduce their kids to the world of birding by telling them that “this is called a BIRD and it lives in a nest”. No, it will always be a BIRD and it goes peep. And here is a dog and it goes woof, woof, and this is a cow and it goes moo, moo.
Intriguingly, I may mention the correct name of an animal as often as I want and the sound only once, yet it is the sound that my son memorizes as the animal’s name.
Me: “This is a sheep, it’s called a sheep. A sheep goes baa. It’s a sheep. What is it?”
Son: “It’s a baa!”
Although it may seem otherwise, my son has very well also memorized the word “sheep” in the example above. If I ask him where the sheep is within a group of assorted animals, he will not point to the goat, the camel, or the polar bear. Nope, no way, he will invariably point to the sheep within the crowd as if it was the most self-evident thing on earth and say “There’s the baa!”
He’s clearly doing this by choice.
From this I recently concluded that humans must have an ancient and inherent urge to name animals by the sound they make, and as Rick has recently pointed out using the word *ghans, this has indeed been common practice amongst our forefathers.
Now, as I have expressed a few issues with many of our birds’ common names in the past, I wondered if this emphasis on onomatopoeic aspects might be a viable way of making the names of birds more accessable to novices, and give them an air of sense and meaning. So I gave it a try, and here are a few short birding episodes of mine as my son would narrate them, with the common names in brackets (sound descriptions were taken from Sibley’s field guide).
Michigan, summer 2007:
A soaring Yaaa Yaa Ya [Double-crested Cormorant] had me all confused as it was so reminiscent of a Krr kr krr kr kr krrr krr [Anhinga], but a thorough analysis of the photos took care of this hope for a rarity.
This Peter peter – aka Tufted Titmouse – had found a puddle that hadn’t fully petered out
Ontario, May 2005:
While I sat in the evening sun overlooking the marsh, I scanned the reeds and cattails for a Rad rad rad rad [Yellow-headed Blackbird]. But no such luck. Thankfully, two Poopoopoo [Least Bittern] in flight offered some well-deserved consolation.
Norway, June 1992:
Having arrived at the northern coast of Hamningberg, I was thrilled to immediately notice a strong movement of birds along the shoreline, mostly involving Aarrr [Common Murre] and Urrr [Razorbill], but also the hoped-for Aoorrr [Thick-billed Murre].
Ontario, June 2007:
Scanning through the flocks of Kuleeeeuk [Ring-billed Gulls] at the tip of Point Pelee for the umpteenth time, I sincerely wished they all … well … at least one could be a California Gaaal [yes, that’s right].
It can’t be denied that those purely onomatopoeic bird names sound quite sharp and make the entire concept of calling birds by their call appear quite convincing. But is it really practicable? Let us see how well you do with purely onomatopoeic bird names by inviting you to do a little quiz. This time however, I have raised the bar somewhat, and the descriptions may or may not be from the Sibley’s guide and quite possibly also from other field guides. You will really have to try and visualize, or rather audiolize the songs from their descriptions to reach an identification. As I am on a monthly beat and birders are not known for being exceedingly patient (bird fast, twitch young – except those committed to making visual contact with Black Rails, I guess), the solution will be included further down in this post, hidden from your monitor by a random selection of bird pictures. Here is the task:
Guess or rather definitely identify the bird species on the following list of onomatopoeic “names”:
7. p’t’peer p’d’jjeet
Here are the bouncer pictures that ensure the solutions are off your monitor…
This Corn Bunting belongs to a very small group of birds where the onomatopoeic concept would be compromised. No one wants to put down in writing the sound of jangling keys
Rock Pipits share their winter habitat with the Purple Sandpiper, but clearly got the worse end of the names deal. Purple Pipit would have been so much more inspired. It’s potential onomatopoeic name? Oh, never mind, think “Purple Pipit”!”
And now, after cleansing glances at some of Europe’s most colourful birds, here are the solutions:
1. Say’s Phoebe [American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide: All the Birds of North America] 2. Say’s Phoebe [National Geographic Society: Field Guide to the Birds of North America] 3. Say’s Phoebe [Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of North America] 4. Say’s Phoebe [“Golden Field Guide”: A Guide to Field Identification, Birds of North America] 5. Say’s Phoebe [Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion] 6. Say’s Phoebe [Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America] 7. Say’s Phoebe [the new Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America] 8. Say’s Phoebe [The Sibley Guide to Birds]
Come to think of it, I might see a problem. Do you see a problem? Why, yes, there might indeed be a problem.
Upon closer inspection, the respective descriptions – while not diametrically opposed – do seem to show an amount of variation one would struggle to label as insignificant. Indeed, from the variation presented by different authors, it would even seem that there is a disturbance in the interface between the acoustic signal and the literary presentation, making the descriptions highly susceptible to a certain degree of randomness.
Therefore, I conclude that the oh so promising strategy of using an onomatopoeic approach to get rid of awkward and gawky names like Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Connecticut Warbler is fundamentally flawed or at best only applicable to regions that are covered by one field guide and one guide only, like … the moon and such.
This is really too bad, but in defeat lies opportunity for more reflecting.
Lo and behold, this insight led me to critically analyse my use of sound descriptions in field guides, and the result is quite shocking!
I barely make use of them.
Seriously, I hardly ever read them at all, and – if my memory serves me right – I have never, ever identified a bird call or song by using the description in a field guide alone. Surely the descriptions allowed for a rough assessment of the possible species involved, but a certain ID, one I was confident enough about that I included the bird in my written notes?
I don’t think so.
It would seem that I mostly – or almost exclusively – use the descriptions of song and call to support a difficult identification when I have both seen the bird and heard it vocalize. Of course I am fully aware of their importance in that respect, after all I live in the land of Acrocephalus and Phylloscopus warblers, but I have often wondered if these song descriptions shouldn’t put more emphasis on highlighting these precise differences instead of simply trying to describe a song or call in words.
What do you think?
How important are the call and song descriptions in field guides to you and how heavily or not do you make use of them while out in the field?
Feel free to fire away in the comments section, and next time you’re outside, go get yourself some chiti WEEW wewidoo and say hello from me.
The problem with onomatopoeic naming is best demonstrated by my local owl. All three of its names are onomatopoeic, whether you call it a morepork, a rurur or a boobook. But which is correct?
That should be ruru, not rurur. Sorry.
Thanks for the post Jochen, I’m by no means what you might call an ornithologist but rather a tramper. More often than not, whilst walking in the dense forests of New Zealand you can hear a bird before seeing it (if you’re lucky). Many of them have such distinctive calls that you can immediately identify them. I have learnt the name of birds I have only seen in pictures by repeating their call or describing it to someone in the know who can then identify it for me.
very interesting read. thanks for a great post
It is great to have you on the 10000 birds ship!
For the (new world) warblers, I ended up doing my own document describing bird songs using MY words (I guess a french birder can not use english words and letters very effectively to describe bird songs!), with links between similar bird songs (and notes on top of these links, such as “slowler”, “similar, but falling in pitch at the end”. Those notes give me a more visual approach to bird songs. It works for me anyway
I agree that some bird guides are not the most effective to translate bird calls and songs into words. Even more, I think that, sometimes, Authors are not doing their best into this essential part of the bird description. How to explain that David Sibley righfully describes the call of the golden-crowned kinglet as “a very high, thin, slighly buzzing zee zee zee” (for me it’s more like tssee tssee tssee), without mentioning the similar call of the creeper? On the creeper side, though, the similarity between the calls is noted, with “a very high sree similar to golden crowned kinglet, but single and with a relaxed liquid quality”.
I would not comment on “the relaxed liquid quality of the call” (maybe my ear is not good enough, both zee or sre sounds exactly the same to me), but
the lack of consistency (if creeper sounds like kinglet, therefore kinglet sounds also like a creeper), tells me that David, a gifted artist, obviously put more emphasis, attention and energy in his wonderfull drawings (the beating on my field guide shows how much I love this guide!) that trying to find a consistent system to describe bird songs. On the particular case of these two birds, I think he should enphasizes on the diagnostic part of the call (the number of repetitions of the zee, sre, or tsee, whatever)
It is my fear that the field guides of the next generation (applications on portable devices such as Iphones) will reduce the analysis of the bird song to a simple (or, say, a serie of) recordings of it, without explaining or pointing out the diagnostic part of the song. The song of the ruby crowned kinglet, for instance, eluded me for 2 years (mind you, I am a rookie, as you know), until I discover “birding by ear”, pointing out the diagnostic introductory 2 notes.
Delightful post. As a playwright for whom dialogue is the primary tool for conveying character (as well as action, behavior and conflict), I am amused by the challenges presented by your experiment of naming and identifying birds by their “speech.” And your spot-on observation about young children and animal sounds is fascinating. Why is that, I wonder?
Wow, Jochen! Fascinating post. (And I second OWtD’s seconding of your point about how small children learn about the animal world)
A rank amateur, I use the sound descriptions in field guides sparingly; like you, I find they’re rarely the deciding factor in an ID. (Although the print description of Marsh Wren as sounding like a sewing machine fit perfectly and nailed it for me.)
What has helped me a great deal more is CDs, such as the Peterson Birding by Ear set. I’ve learned to pick out birds that never emerged from the foliage. Making notes on my interpretation of each is helpful too. (And where else is a New Yorker going to get a chance to hear a Ruffed Grouse?)
Awesome first post, Jochen, and I’m looking forward to many more!
I don’t think I’ve ever used the written sound descriptions in a field guide as the sole basis for identification. However, I have used them to help confirm the IDs of bird that I saw. Audio recordings (and field experience) are much more useful for learning what bird species sound like.
Great stuff Jochen…guess what sound our Grey Crowned Babblers make here?!
@Duncan: exactly, exactly. The big question is: are any of the examples correct at all? (see the following paragraph)
@Naomi: hearing without seeing, that’s the difficulty of forest birding. I guess identification by sound alone (if you are unfamiliar with the song and do not catch a glimpse of the bird) is more easy in NZ because the variety of forest bird species is rather limited. In central Europe, or the North American Great Lakes region, one may encounter 60 or more species of bird in forest/hedgerow habitat at the same time, and that makes the identification by sound descriptions such a challenge. However, it isn’t all that easy even in NZ! When I tramped across Stewart Island, I underestimated the time it would take to hike from Freshwater Landing to North Arm (if you haven’t done this track yet but heard of how difficult it is: all the stories of doom and death wishes are severe understatements. Yes, it is that hard, and then some), and it got dark. This was not a big issue as I had a flash light and was on a well-marked path, so I was okay. It was even absolutely fascinating as I kept hearing all the eerie screams and calls of nocturnal birds. I was sure some were from kiwis while others must have been from moreporks/rurus/boobooks, but I was not able to sort them out by the descriptions of the calls in the (absolutely fabulous) NZ field guide. So I think it is tough, even in NZ! 🙂
@Dan: thanks!!! Glad you enjoyed it.
@Laurent: hear, hear, great comment!! Yes, I completely agree with everything. It seems that the decription of sounds in field guides is often lacking a concept, a strategy, and it seems to be done quite randomly, without much cross-reference. I also fear, like you, that future guides will simply contain sound files and I don’t think that’s a good solution either. Sometimes you will hear a certain song or call only once and I find it difficult to memorize this song long enough when I then listen to 10 or more different bird recordings to identify the initial song. The recordings frequently “dilude” my memory of the song and I eventually give up.
@OWTD: glad you had fun reading it. Yes, this emphasis on an animal’s call is quite intriguing, particularly as the visual perception of their surroundings is the most important sense for humans. I guess I’ll have to give this more thought and observation…
@Meredith: thanks so much! Yes, I have heard the Peterson’s Learning by Ear are very good. Sadly I didn’t purchase them back in the days when I was spending a year in Michigan. The question now is how to get this concept for a CD into a written field guide! And as you (and Laurent) have pointed out, written notes about an unknown bird call are often helpful.
About the Ruffed Grouse: well, as long as you have Prothonotary Warblers hanging out with a few Sparrows at the Library, the pain about a lack of Ruffies is surely something birders can cope with? 🙂
@John: exactly! My problem is that I find sound recordings not really useful for field identification, only for getting prepared for a trip. The key question is if it is possible to get all that information into a written form so it makes sense and is of real help.
@Clare: oh geez, jangling keys? 🙂 I’ll have to google them, I am afraid. Or better yet, I’ll have to visit Broome without telling you, go hear a Grey Crowned Babbler and then know on your door with a surprise visit. “Hello Clare, great to meet you! I am jochen and the Grey Crowned Babbler goes …”
@all: has anyone actually tried solving the quiz or have you all just scrolled down? come on, be honest with me, be honest! 😉
I didn’t try to solve the quiz, but you know why that is!
Great post, and I must agree with you and the folks above who find it interesting that kids ID animals by sound.
And, by the way, one of my favorite bird sound descriptions is that of the Rusty Blackbird, whose song has been likened to the sound of a rusty gate being opened.
I recently had a moment with the call descriptions in the Peterson’s guide (Western Birds edition.) I was walking up a mountain, and as such was quite interested in the possibility of seeing, among other things, a Mountain Chickadee. Big flocks of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches were moving around far too fast to scrutinize every bird. The field guide said that the call of the M.C. was like that of the Black-capped, but hoarser, which sounded subjective enough that I was a bit worried and squinting (if you could squint with your ears) at each dee-dee-dee for traces of hoarseness.
When the Mountain Chickadee did show up, though, the hoarseness was very distinct. It also sat still on a branch where I could see it for a bit just to be extra helpful. Good bird.
I have to say, though, that this was so memorable because I don’t usually find the call descriptions in the field guides particularly helpful at all.
@Corey: you didn’t try the quiz because you couldn’t wait to see some fine brown birds after your Ecuador colour orgy.
Thanks, and it is peculiar, right? The things we learn from our kids.
I have also found descriptions more helpful than cases in which the author is trying to mimic the sound. In this case the “rusty gate” is probably better than writing – I don’t know – something like “a drawn-out screeeiaheee-ee-eee”.
@Carrie: Ah, the Mountain Chickadee – I’d love to spent some time in mountains again, especially with as many potential lifers as the Rockies, where I have never been. I really must try to visit the Rockies as soon as possible… Oh, to be in Grouse land again. *sigh*
Glad to read your chickadee call episode ended happily. I had a comparable experience around the Great Lakes, but sadly with a very different ending: I had birded the Upper Peninsular of Michigan for a week and one of my most sought-after species – and one of the trip’s most epic fails – was the Boreal Chickadee. In the course of my searches through boreal forests, I had memorized the call descriptions of the bird and was on constant red alert mode. Imagine my surprise when I heard what clearly was a Boreal Chickadee a week later at Lake Erie’s Point Pelee national park. Following the call, I was finally able to clearly see and closely inspect its avian source, a plain ol’ typical Black-capped Chickadee.
I guess your last paragraph sums it all up very fittingly. The fact that one succeeds with the descriptions alone is memorable. So was the Mountain Chickadee, I guess?
What bird sounds like it’s saying “oh yeah”