Surprisingly, a large number of beginning birders think that all it takes to be a birder is to go out into the woods with their bird book and binoculars and watch for birds. And in some ways, they have it right. To bird, you don’t need to be highly trained. But if you expect to find birds like the seclusive Gray Catbird, then you’re going to need more than your eyes: you’ll need your ears, and highly trained ones, too.
Okay. Time to delve into a bit of biology for you sciency folks. Just like a human’s voice comes from a voice box located near our throat, birds also have a type of voice box, called a syrinx. This voice box, as Google can so kindly inform us, “is located at or near the junction of the trachea and bronchi and is well developed in songbirds”. It is filled with tiny tissues that vibrate as air is pushed through, producing sounds. The unique thing about this little organ, however, is that it allows the bird to make two sounds at once. I think a picture would help illustrate this.
As you can see, the syrinx has two different passageways that the air can pass through, and the bird can operate these separately, at will. Perhaps one of most skilled birds in this order is the Northern Cardinal.
The Cardinal can trill through more notes than a piano in just a tenth of a second, sweeping through the notes on one side of the syrinx and switching to the other side all in one breath. It’s quite a feat, and you’d have to sit and listen to a Cardinal yourself. But not only can some songbirds match the Cardinal’s feat, but they can surpass it by singing two notes at the same time. The Wood Thrush can sing rising and falling notes at the same time. How do we know this, you ask? Well, in 1951, the Kay Electric Company invented the first spectrogram, a device that could record things like sound frequency, dynamics, and pitch. Birders are beginning to use this method of recording bird songs more and more.
But birds aren’t perfect. They don’t get to operate their syrinx perfectly the first time they open their beak, just as we can’t talk perfectly the first time we open our mouths. It takes practice. And the song depends on so many different things: practice, the bird’s parents, and other birds in the area. When a bird, let’s take a Cardinal for example, first hatches out of its egg, all it knows how to do is open its mouth and cheep. For the first couple weeks of its life in the outside world, a baby cardinal’s song repertoire is a single, piercing note. But as its feathers develop, so does its voice. It begins to mimic its parents’ songs, developing and testing and creating their own unique song as they venture further and further out of the nest. But they also learn from their fellow bird species, too. In order to declare your territory, you have to be able to communicate with the ones encroaching on your territory. This means that bird songs will only sound generally the same. Just as human language develops dialects according to region and culture, so too does bird song. Every cardinal is going to add something different to its song, something that makes it unique from every other, but also something that is unique to that community of birds.
So learning some simple bird songs before you go out and look for birds is an essential part of becoming a good birder. Some awesome online resources include Cornell Lab Bird Academy (they’ll teach you more about spectograms) and allaboutbirds.com (has thousands of recordings of bird songs). Go forth, young birding padawans!