The joys of 'watching' the birds with your ears

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

Epiphanies are rare in life but all the more precious because of that. And sometimes they occur when our eyes, or, in my case, ears, are opened to something that was there all the time.

We bird-watchers come by our name honestly. We do a lot of watching and, for a long time, it was the only way I gathered information about birds. Of course, I had known the robin's sprightly song from childhood and had learned to recognize the bald eagle's hoarse greeting soon after making Alaska my home. It took only a single walk with my bird-wise friend Peg, however, to shock me into realizing that an entire dimension would be added to observing birds if I could learn to recognize their voices.

What had I been doing all this time wandering around as though deaf?

Listening to birds is especially valuable for identification in Southeast Alaska, which is carpeted - suffocated even - in vegetation of the thickest, most impenetrable kind. Without auditory assistance I could stand staring for hours into an alder thicket gnashing my teeth as I tried to identify that bird within. Hearing its drawn-out descending trill, I know at once that it's an orange-crowned warbler despite its fiendish camouflage resembling, what else? - an alder leaf.

After my awakening, I set about beginning to learn birds' vocalizations. The first I tackled was the upward spiraling song of the Swainson's thrush that taunted me each evening from a nearby tree. What a song - aching with melancholy beauty - far more lovely than the plainly clad bird.

As a former music teacher, I was awed by the way unearthly voices were boxed in unlikely bodies. Gifts do come in surprising packages sometimes. And what a rewarding feeling it was when I finally was able to connect bird and song. Bird by bird, I have added to my repertoire, which, with our limited Southeast species, is admittedly not large but hard won.

Many of the birders I know are musicians, all of us amateurs, but more or less knowledgeable about the art. Are vocalizations a part of the attraction of birds for us? When challenged with an unfamiliar bird call or song, I often find myself using musical language to record it in my mind, hoping to remember it long enough till I get home to my CD player and "Bird Songs of Alaska" by Leonard Peyton.

Ascending or descending movement, rhythm, tempo, interval - all can be helpful for learning vocalizations.

The galloping rhythm of the common yellowthroat or the descending minor thirds of the yellow-crowned sparrow identify these birds as surely as their yellow markers.

For me, mnemonic devices and those little printed charts have never been useful, though I once really did hear an olive-sided flycatcher shout, "Whip three beers!"

Listening to bird vocalizations requires focus.

In this age of superficial multitasking, concentrating feels like stretching unused muscles.

There's a kind of pain, but it feels good. Again, in contrast to daily life, when we are fully focused, we escape despotic time.

We moderns, unlike unlettered peoples who know that hearing is believing, are so wedded to the use of our eyes to tell us the truth that we no longer trust our ears.

As a result, our auditory memories have withered from disuse and our discernment of sounds is grown rusty. Like somnambulists, we move about, convinced we are awake, but missing much.

As the Psalmist said, "They have ears but they hear not."

Sounds, like smells, call into play our primitive brain, defying logic and physics in their ability to transcend time and space.

The call of a blue jay even now transports me back half a century to my grandfather's farm where those birds still carry on their summer revels near the gully.

Hearing a northern crow, I'm a girl again, hanging my head out the bedroom window to listen to the solitary cry of its New York cousin reverberating in the still, early morning air.

We're all sleepwalking, to a lesser or greater degree through life, but the more alert we can be, the richer will be our experience of it.

Henry David Thoreau remarked that, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake."

What better lesson can bird song have to teach us than to keep vigilant with all our senses, alert for the serendipitous.

Now that's living!

Bonnie Demerjian listens to birds in her hometown of Wrangell. Contact members of Juneau Audubon Society through their Web site at

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