Birding by Ear

A Prothonotary warbler

A Prothonotary warbler

Some people who love birds can listen to the forest chatter and tell you what kinds of birds are singing. The titmouse and the mourning dove, the chickadee and the robin and the wren and even–I’ve seen them out my back window–the stunningly yellow Prothonotary¬† warbler. For some people, all of these birds are like friends who call on the phone and don’t have to say who they are because you recognize their voices right away.

But I’m sitting on my back deck right now as dawn turns to morning, and I just hear birds. Lots of them, to be sure. Looking for food, calling for mates, declaring their territory, greeting the day. Chips and chirps and whistles and trills. I would know many of these birds if I saw them, but I when I just hear their voices I’m at a loss.

There’s the neighbor’s rooster, though. I learned about cock-a-doodle-doo in preschool. And technically a rooster is a bird, right?

And a cardinal. I know what they sound like because even living in town they were all over the place. I got used to hearing their proud, jaunty proclamations and looking up to see a bright spot of red perched high on a tree or wire or pole singing his little heart out. I try not to take the cardinals for granted; they are truly beautiful birds. When I hear their call–long notes followed by short–I look for the flash of red. . . . I see him now, near the top of a dead tree. And there’s another across the way calling back to him.

I know some of the birds I hear this morning are woodpeckers. The little hairy woodpeckers and the red-bellied and the flickers, maybe even a redheaded, though I haven’t seen any of those. I don’t know what their calls sound like, but I know the sharp raps they make when they are drilling into trees–or the siding on our outbuilding. It’s sharp and loud and echoes from a distance.

In the past week I’ve learned what an oriel sounds like, though I don’t hear any right now. There are a few that hang out in the trees in my front yard and I’ve learned that even with a bright orange chest an oriel can hide behind a leaf where his shrill call taunts me and I can’t quite see him–even with the binoculars. Luckily one of the trees in our front yard is dead, and when he sits high up in those bare branches I have a lovely view. (Though I’m afraid my husband plans to cut down that tree and then I may never see an oriel again.)

I’m pretty sure I heard an owl last night, though I couldn’t begin to tell you what kind. And it’s possible I dreamed it because I never fully woke up. I just have this warm cozy memory of darkness and hooting.

Birding by ear is something I’m learning. Very slowly. In fact, it may take the rest of my life. And even then I may not be able to identify more than a handful of birds by sound. And that is OK.

For now, this back deck is a good place to practice listening. This early morning is a good time to realize that there is beauty hiding within beauty in this world.

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