David Sibley was gracious enough to reply to my recent post on Buff-collared Nightjar, first in a comment on my blog, then yesterday in a post on his own blog. He takes issue with me on at least one point:
Nathan Pieplow seems to suggest that, for decades, observers have misidentified Vermilion Flycatchers as Cassin’s Kingbirds, and then mistakenly written that Cassin’s Kingbird sounds like Buff-collared Nightjar.
I guess I did seem to suggest that, but I didn’t really intend to. Instead, I think I meant, “an authoritative source once misidentified a Vermilion Flycatcher as a Cassin’s Kingbird, and for decades, authors have perpetuated the error by simply citing the published assertion that Cassin’s Kingbird sounds like Buff-collared Nightjar.” Given what David wrote in his comment and his post, even the latter assertion by me is a little unfair to him at least, and perhaps to many of the other people I mentioned in that post, since David didn’t just blindly repeat the conventional wisdom; he had field experience to back it up. (However, see his post for an interesting discussion of how the conventional wisdom might have influenced his field experience.)
Overall, though, regardless of who (mis)identified what, David has started a very interesting and, I think, important discussion about a sea change that may be occurring in how birders listen to bird sounds. He writes:
I learned bird songs decades ago through countless hours of field experience, supplemented by listening to a few recordings, reading detailed descriptions, and talking to other birders. It was a subjective, holistic approach to bird songs that led to a sort of gestalt style of identification – after you hear a sound often enough the identification just becomes second-nature.
Now, it still takes countless hours, but birders have a wealth of technological aids, allowing them to study and compare bird sounds with an ease and immediacy that was never possible before. In the modern world of ipods, sonagrams, and websites like xeno-canto, birders can examine the bird sounds directly, objectively, and in great detail. This may lead (as Nathan Pieplow admits) to a slightly greater emphasis on differences in pattern rather than the more subjective and hard-to-describe differences in tone.
Given how suggestible we are, and how tiny things can influence our perception, the detail-oriented objective approach to bird sound identification is probably better and more accurate. A similar shift happened in sight identification a couple of decades ago, and that shift can also be linked to technology. In the 1980s it was rapidly improving photographic equipment and optics that allowed more detailed study and comparison of living birds than ever before, leading to a whole new approach to identification based on feather details, molt, etc.
It may be that with modern technology Cassin’s Kingbird is no longer such a source of confusion with Buff-collared Nightjar. If so it has merely been replaced by another species (Vermilion Flycatcher) that is less easily sorted by the modern style.
This gives me a lot to think about. Perhaps the different ways in which we learned our bird sounds might provide insight into how David Sibley and I listen to sounds differently. He learned sounds in the field; I learned them on the floor of my bedroom in South Dakota when I was in high school, playing the Peterson Birding By Ear tapes over and over again. Those tapes (which remain the best resource I’ve ever seen for people who want to learn bird sounds on their own) didn’t take a holistic, all-at-once approach; instead they took an analytic approach, grouping similar sounds together and then pointing out key field marks or “handles” — here a distinctive tone quality, there a distinctive rhythm — to distinguish sounds within the groups.
I’ve used this same basic approach to sound identification ever since: recognize a pattern, then focus on a piece of it. The pattern gets you to the right group; the pieces narrow the identification to species. Tone quality is part of this analysis, but not the most important part.
In fact, in some ways I think I place a pretty low priority on tone quality. For several years now, I have been convinced that tone quality is the slipperiest attribute of sound: the hardest to analyze perceptually, the hardest to describe. And I think tone quality is responsible for most of the disconnect between most descriptions of sounds and the sounds themselves. I de-emphasize it precisely because it is so difficult to categorize. Other attributes of sound are much easier to describe and compare, so those are the ones I focus on.
For the most part, I’m just doing what works for me, but I hope it works for other people as well. I really do believe in the objective, analytic approach. On the whole, I don’t think I can say it any better than I said it at the end of my Birding article:
When we set about describing a bird sound in words, we should avoid the temptation to describe how the sound makes us feel or what it reminds us of, since those things exist in us, not in the sound. Instead we should strive to describe what is there: what can be measured with a stopwatch, pointed out on a sonogram, and defined in an empirical fashion. I cannot claim yet to have accomplished this with pinpoint accuracy. But I firmly believe that it can be done, and I firmly believe we should start to do it.