In this day and age, I’m always surprised at the contrast between the level at which many advanced birders discuss plumage cues and the much more primitive way a lot of us approach sounds. I doubt I could convince many people on this forum of the identity of a vagrant by saying “but it looked just like the picture in my field guide!” (maybe if I repeated it?) but that type of argument is offered much more often, even routinely, in discussions of sounds.
He then apologizes for sounding like a preachy blowhard. (Hoo boy! If those are the words of a preachy blowhard, then I’ve got a lot to apologize for!)
I couldn’t agree more with his argument, which neatly summarizes the raison d’etre of this entire blog. I also wrote a Birding magazine article a few years ago that created a conceptual framework intended to help people describe sounds better. But reading Chris’s comments, I realized that a conceptual framework may not be of immediate use to people hearing bird sounds in the field. What they need are a set of instructions. So I decided to write a few.
How to Describe A Bird Sound in Six Easy Steps
- If you can, make an audio recording. Use your cell phone. Use your camera on the video setting. Use a cheap voice recorder. Use your laptop. Use any device that can possibly record sound. If you don’t have one, that’s OK — but if you have any audio recording capability whatsoever, don’t proceed to Step 2 until you’ve done Step 1!
- Count the notes. (If they are too fast or too many to count, make a note of that.)
- Figure out which notes are repeated, if any. (Remember: trills are made of notes that are repeated, too fast to count.)
- Write down nonsense words that sound like what the bird is saying (that is, onomatopoeia). Try not to use real words or phrases, as you’re likely to get closer to the original sound if you let yourself break the rules of English. Spend some time on this, and try to get the transcription as close to the original as possible.
- Compare the sound you’re hearing to similar sounds. These could be bird sounds or non-bird sounds — for example, “like a robin song, but without any pauses”; “like the squeak of a shoe on a gym floor”; “like an electronic video game.” Spend some time on this also — come up with multiple comparisons if at all possible.
- Sketch the sound. If the pitch of the sound goes up, draw a line that goes up. If it then goes down, draw a line that goes down. You get the idea. Put each note on the page, the way it sounds to your ear.
So, for the record, that’s
Or ACROSS for short.
OK, I know, that’s cheesy. But seriously, these are the steps to follow in the field. Don’t just settle for one of the steps — do them all! Try them with common birds. Try them with birds you don’t know (I’ll be happy to help you identify the results). Try them when documenting rarities.
You don’t need to know any fancy terminology, have any musical training, or use any “conceptual frameworks” when describing bird sounds — you just need to sit down and take the time to do each step carefully. It will change the way you listen, and it will change the way you talk about what you hear.