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The Sounds of Birding

January 21, 2011

Whenever Winnipeg winters got too much for me or my job got me down, I would fantasize about ditching everything to become a bird guide in some warm, sunny place. Costa Rica, for instance, or Ecuador, or Australia. Warm climates, lots of birds. Ah!

For an avid birder, could there possibly be a better job?

But bird guiding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It can be delightful sharing your knowledge of birds and helping novices identify beautiful winged creatures and discover the joys of birding. It can also be taxing.

In 2006 big-time novelist Jonathan Franzen (Freedom) wrote an article for New Yorker magazine called “My Bird Problem.” It so inspired a literary friend of mine that he asked me to help him become a birder. I soon realized that it would be easier for me to become quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens than it would for him to become a birder. He just couldn’t see birds lined up full-frame in a fieldscope; he couldn’t hear birds two feet away from him. That bird guiding experience didn’t last long.

He was an extreme example of those wannabee birders that I call the Whazzats. These are earnest people who can hear birds but can’t locate or identify them. There’s usually one on each bird outing. Every time they hear even the slightest sound, they ask: “Whazzat?!” In fact, it’s usually a command. This can drive even the most patient bird guide batty. Well, it can drive me batty!

I used to consider myself a pretty expert identifier of birds and birdsong. My confidence was shaken one time when a group of us heard a very quiet “seep” sound. Somebody identified it as a robin. Several of us were dismissive. But it turned out to be a robin.

That little bit of insecurity has grown as I have traveled to other places in May and June, prime bird sound season. Without constant reinforcement, I seem to have lost my ear for calls and songs. With so many similar and near similar birdsongs from other lands now jammed in my brain, cognitive dissonance has set in.

My fantasy of being an exotic bird guide faded until I heard about I-Phone and I-Pod bird apps. It’s the bird sounds of these bird apps that make them so valuable. These little gizmos have restored my faith in someday dropping everything and guiding people in some hot, sunny, birdy locale. Ah!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2011 9:38 am

    I was on a hike during a birding class with UVM a few years ago and we were guided by the Vermont State Naturalist. He knew every call and every feather of every bird, but when another classmate asked about a high pitched peep in the forest canopy, the naturalist stopped, listened for a moment and then continued on saying he couldn’t hear it.

    I was leading a trip in the Everglades recently when a woman pointed out a bird and asked what it was. I stopped, looked at it and continued on saying I didn’t hear it. The Naturalist’s trick doesn’t always work.

    We can’t know everything but we can learn something everyday.

  2. Dolores Hoerner permalink
    January 24, 2011 5:55 pm

    Love you guys….I heard a Robin last week; now think about it. This is central Illinois and January and cold, my private joke was, it must have been in a coma. Saturday I saw it in the parking lot drinking out of a sink hole. Trust your ears. Wish I had the electronics for the bird apps. I hear birds with no clue unless I can sit long enough to see it move. Keep up the great work.

  3. January 26, 2011 9:48 am

    Great points on the humorous side! I can relate! You’ve also given me greater a different angle on those bird apps. I live in Orchard Park, NY and I keep hearing a 2-note bird call that I cannot, for the life of me, identify. I didn’t really consider the phone apps worth buying, but you’ve convinced me otherwise. Thanks so much for the laugh AND the advice!

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