Birds Are a Science

I recognized none of the birdsong I heard walking home tonight. The daunting Birds of Michigan (Auburn, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 2003) makes you feel like such a nitwit when you open it up and see meticulous descriptions of the calls and songs of hundreds of Michigan birds.

The Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus—what a great Linnaean name) has a call that is described as a “quick, loud, chattering kit-kit-kitter-kitter; also a buzzy dzee-dzee-dzee.” How can you tell the “kitters” from the “dzees”?

The black-throated blue warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) has a song that is a “slow, wheezy I am soo lay-zeee, rising slowly throughout; call is a short tip.”

LeConte’s sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) has a “weak, short, raspy, insect-like buzz: t-t-zeeee zee or take-it ea-zeee.”

Here’s the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis): “song is a long, varied series of trills, twitters, warbles and hissing notes; calls include po-ta-to-chip or per-chic-or-ee (often delivered in flight) and a whistled dear-me, see-me.”

And the (male) red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus): “song is a continuous, variable, robinlike run of quick, short phrases with distinct pauses in between: Look-up, way-up, tree-top, see-me, here-I-am!”

Now how is anyone who hasn’t been a birdwatcher for years supposed to distinguish calls using those descriptions? I guess the answer is: You’re not. You learn by listening, not reading.

The only call I thought I recognized tonight was a couple of distinctive hooot hooot sounds from what may have been a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) somewhere behind the house.