There’s no doubt about it, we North American birders have it easy. Our warblers are impossibly colored. Our chat is big and weird. Our Herring Gull is only one species. There’s a reason that many of the continent’s best field birders are all European ex-pats who were trained in the ways of Phylloscopus and Acrocephalus and who forsake all that to join the land of Setophaga and Geothlypis. But the one group of birds that we North Americans can legitimately claim to puzzle over are the tyrant flycatchers, particularly the difficult genus Empidonax. There’s scarcely a birder among us who feels confident about them all the time, and while many Empids do the right thing and vocalize in unique ways (well, mostly unique), way way too many of them are relegated to the dreaded Empidonax sp box. Even the best must draw the line somewhere sometimes.
So in order to tackle the Empid problem, birders have devised mnemonics, intended to make identification simple on the chance that those wretched little birds deign to bestow a vocalization on us. Birders know them well. Che-beck. Pizza. Fee-bee-o. Fitzbew. Here’s the thing though. They’re terrible. Really really awful ways to remember this vocalizations. And I think that every spring when the first Acadian Flycatcher says something that could not sound less like “Pizza”. These things are awful. There needs to be better way.
Case in point, a couple days ago I chased a Willow Flycatcher in my home county. It was singing in, where else, a willow swamp. Willow Flycatcher is an uncommon migrant in my part of the state. Annual, but not often found. It was, in short, a pretty good bird and I was going to make an effort to see it. So I rolled up to the swamp and listened for the tell-tale Fitz-bew. Only I didn’t hear it. I heard something else. Something more like a b-b-b-bRITZ-hew!
Now you may think that the difference is pretty minor, that I’m being some sort of birdsong pedant by even bringing this up. But birders are told from the time they’re novices that Willow Flycatchers say Fitz-bew and Alders say Fee-bee-o when they say nothing of the sort. And the problem is that birders will be listening for the wrong thing, or they won’t be able to recognize what they’re hearing when they hear it. I’m not sure how these mnemonics became such common knowledge (maybe RTP?), but they’re not doing birders any favors.
A big part of the problem is the use of the letter F in these mnemonics. In humans, the sound of the letter F is made by placing your lower lip against the bottom of your top teeth and blowing. You can see why this is a problem for birds, who lack both lips and teeth. Yes, there’s no commonly accepted language for talking about incredibly variable bird vocalizations, but can we at least agree to leave F out of them? Particularly when that particular letter fails to describe the sputtery percussiveness of a Willow Flycatcher song?
Bird books are rampant with this stuff. Acadian Flycatchers say Pizza, but they really saw “peet-SA!”, because no one stresses the second syllable in that word even with the most outrageous Italian accent. Yet beginning birders are fed this stuff as if it’s birding lore. It’s time to break free!
I’m not sure what the answer is other than to come up with, as a community, more clever sayings. We deserve a better brand of bird songs. Let’s here what you have to say in the comments!