Thoughts on Birding Without Binoculars

An interesting topic came up about the virtues of birding without binoculars. I have only really done this when I’ve forgotten my binoculars but had some desire/need to go out anyway. One time, it ended up being a fun exercise for someone I was mentoring in their beginning birding journey.

First off, it’s humbling: you’re reduced to your mere mortal eyesight, and your optical superpower is gone. It puts you back in leagues with everything around you, which is a good feeling while being out in nature. In other words, your senses are limited to your species capability, and nothing else to aid you. You and every other species you encounter only has their natural equipment to help them take in the ecosystem around them, so the playing field is a bit more leveled. Also, in getting back to your species capabilities, I had to be all the more careful stalking a bird, because I needed to be closer to it to get a good look. This may even lead the observer to be more careful, and less apt to flush: it’s tempting to flush a bird when you know it will perch more out in the open, but birding without binoculars means you still need to keep it close enough to look at. Does this promote “lower impact” birding in the sense of less disturbance to a bird? Also, does it promote more careful, quiet walks in the woods as opposed to car birding to check out things at a distance/take in as many species as easily observable from a spot?

I tend to be, like perhaps everyone else, more thrilled with close, naked-eye looks at birds than through optics. Those sightings are pinnacle observations to me anyway. Not only is it best to see them without needing any aid, but it’s also just the thrill of a wild animal coming close to you, and the delicate nature of the situation required to “earn its trust” if even for a few moments. You learn even more about nature when you have to be careful, and achieve your goal of getting close without disturbing it. Also, in those times where you’re so close that a movement could flush a bird, you carefully watch in awe until it leaves you, which means you may spend more time watching it than you would from a distance. For me, that enhances connection to the birds I’m observing.

So, with this “handicap” of not having optics, what do you observe? What cues do you have to rely on more? Do you even notice things you may not have otherwise? I experienced a bit more of a “gestalt” of the bird community around me: patterns of activity, and perhaps a more nuanced appreciation of micro-site habitat use areas. It goes without saying that I relied on my ears all the more, as it became sometimes the only clue for even birds I would have otherwise been able to look at. In that, even being able to identify “small sounds” became all the more critical. Instead of a chip note pointing me toward the presence of a bird, the chip note itself became more important, and thus more desirable to identify.

Also, trying to “turn up a rarity” sort of goes out the window. You’re more focused on what you know to be around you, than picking through far-away birds for the sake of finding an unusual species. This can help get you out of “listing mode” and more into natural appreciation. I’d say there’s a time and a place for both, but it’s possible to lose appreciation for the common when you’re listing (and to be fair, it’s also possible to do both with mindful attention to nature).

I think the use of binoculars, all things considered, hinders birding…I think of binoculars in the same manner that I think of cars…In the dead of winter, you’ll see a lot more Red-tailed Hawks per hour from a moving car than just by walking or standing around. But imagine if you always stayed in your car while birding. Most of the time, I would say, it’s good to get out of the car. And most of the time—indeed, almost all of the time, I would say—it’s good to leave your binoculars behind.” – Ted Floyd

Ted goes on to describe outings that specifically encourage you to leave your binoculars at home, and the nuances in bird ID you learn along the way! In his group outing, they made extra effort to not only identify to species but age/sex when possible, which required careful observation. He also claims that they could have overlooked warblers if they had been using binoculars, which is counterintuitive. Yet, he claims that the dynamics of the group changed to being less disruptive, and also potentially more cohesive.

At the very least, it could be a new frontier for you, and a new challenge if you’ve been birding for awhile and are looking to up your game. Maybe planning for it will ease my angst about sending off my binoculars for a much-needed cleaning and tune-up, where I’d be without them for a few weeks. Hey, it’s scoping season around here anyway on the big lake, so I could always a hybrid approach instead of “cold turkey” this time of year…

Autonomous Recording Units for Birds

I finally wrote a post that fits all of my blog categories! 🙂 Years ago, Dr. T. Mitchell Aide visited my former lab and I had an opportunity to meet with him. Hearing about his work with automated classification of bird calls first got my mind churning about how we can use ARU’s for gathering field data (Aide et al. 2013). His work focused on the tropics, and thus the complexity of the animal soundscape (Acevedo et al. 2009). I further became interested as I came across the technique for monitoring my nemesis bird, yellow rail! Also, ARU’s have been tested with respect to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) which has been the focus of most of my research to date (Rempel et al. 2013). Soundscape ecology is a relatively new area of research (Pijanowski et al. 2011a) and is considered a branch of my current field, landscape ecology (Pijanowski et al. 2011b).

History

It is important to evaluate ARU’s for avian study, because vocalization accounts for most detection (Acevedo and Villanueva-Rivera 2006). The utility of automated recording units (ARU) for ecology has been investigated for well over a decade, so as anything in ecology methods and technology are always evolving (Haselmayer and Quinn 2000). Thus, there is something of a literary trail as technology has improved, both with respect to recorders and analysis (Haselmayer and Quinn 2000). For example, automated classification was out of reach by the standard of reliability not long ago (Swiston and Mennill 2009). Manual classification seemed to be the only reliable way to identify songs in recordings (Waddle et al. 2009).

Methods

ARU’s have their pros and cons, as well as applicability (Brandes 2008). Recording sounds can provide a less invasive alternative to direct observation, detect hard-to-observe species and sample a large area. For example, an early (and ongoing) application of recording was to monitor nocturnal migration (Farnsworth and Gauthreaux 2004). Additionally, recordings are reviewable, and do not have human listening bias (Digby et al. 2013). This paves the way for standardizing observer effort and capability (Hobson et al. 2002). In comparison to a point count, the visual component is lost, but detection of species by the recording units appears to be relatively high (Alquezar and Machado 2015). Yet, if it is easier to detect a target species visually, ARU’s may not sample them as well as a point count (Celis-Murillo et al. 2012). For at least some species, the best method appears to be to combine point counts and ARU’s for detection (Holmes et al. 2014). While there is now an ever-growing body of literature on the applicability of ARU’s, they are often suited better to some sound qualities over others, species, or certain components of bioacoustics such as temporal patterns (Rognan et al. 2012). ARU’s have now been tested over many different ecosystem types, and results are generally favorable (Venier et al. 2012). However, they may not be able to sample species well that vocalize infrequently and/or are sparsely distributed (Sidie-Slettedahl et al. 2015). There are different configurations of ARU’s to answer different ecological questions (Mennill et al. 2006).

Analysis

Various indices aid in interpreting recordings (Towsey et al. 2014a). There is an R package “soundecology” that now calculates a number of indices from recordings!

  • canonical discriminant analysis (CDA): identifying individuals (Rognan et al. 2009)
  • Acoustic Complexity Index: proxy for species richness (Pieretti et al. 2011)
  • Acoustic Richness index (AR)
  • Acoustic dissimilarity index (D) (Depraetere et al. 2012)
  • Within-group (α) indices (Sueur et al. 2014)
  • Between-group (β) indices
  • acoustic diversity = Shannon index of intensity per frequency (Pekin et al. 2012)

Discussion

ARU’s can answer ecological questions scaling from individual monitoring to community assemblage (Blumstein et al. 2011). With bird species that are well-monitored by ARU’s, life history detail gleaned can even surpass more traditional recapture methods (Mennill 2011)! With “song fingerprints” taking the place of color bands, it is possible to map individual movement patterns (Kirschel et al. 2011). Most often, this means mapping territorial males (Frommolt and Tauchert 2014). If individuals detected at the same place are acoustically distinguishable, it may be possible to estimate abundance, and thus a given species’ population density from recording surveys (Dawson and Efford 2009). There are several species that have been shown to be distinguishable to individual with recording analysis (Ehnes and Foote 2015). This allows for broad scale population monitoring, which may be especially important for threatened species (Bardeli et al. 2010). Further, community descriptors such as species composition may be approximated by characteristics of the soundscape (Celis-Murillo et al. 2009). Community metrics have been found to correlate back to landscape metrics, which may make them useful for conservation (Tucker et al. 2014).

Where we are now

There are still logistical analytical hurdles to overcome, and the development and comparison of methods for sound analysis has paralleled many trends in ecology (Kirschel et al. 2009). For one, ARU’s can present a big data problem, so automating sound analysis is a priority (Towsey et al. 2014b). Because of the promise of ARU’s, though, long-term recording projects are being designed (Turgeon et al. 2017). Right now, we are on the journey from manual to automated classification of songs, falling somewhere in the realm of “semi-automation” (Goyette et al. 2011). Recent efforts in enhancing automated analysis focus on sampling techniques for days-worth of recordings (Wimmer et al. 2013). Now, we can automate at least some species identification in recordings (Potamitis et al. 2014). However, it appears that automation partly depends on the template-matching algorithms used (Joshi et al. 2017).

Literature Cited

Acevedo, M. A., C. J. Corrada-Bravo, H. Corrada-Bravo, L. J. Villanueva-Rivera, and T. M. Aide. 2009. Automated classification of bird and amphibian calls using machine learning: A comparison of methods. Ecological Informatics 4:206–214.

Acevedo, M. A., and L. J. Villanueva-Rivera. 2006. Using Automated Digital Recording Systems as Effective Tools for the Monitoring of Birds and Amphibians. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34:211–214.

Aide, T. M., C. Corrada-Bravo, M. Campos-Cerqueira, C. Milan, G. Vega, and R. Alvarez. 2013. Real-time bioacoustics monitoring and automated species identification. PeerJ 1:e103.

Alquezar, R. D., and R. B. Machado. 2015. Comparisons Between Autonomous Acoustic Recordings and Avian Point Counts in Open Woodland Savanna. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 127:712–723.

Bardeli, R., D. Wolff, F. Kurth, M. Koch, K. H. Tauchert, and K. H. Frommolt. 2010. Detecting bird sounds in a complex acoustic environment and application to bioacoustic monitoring. Pattern Recognition Letters 31:1524–1534.

Blumstein, D. T., D. Mennill, P. Clemins, L. Girod, K. Yao, G. Patricelli, J. L. Deppe, A. H. Krakauer, C. Clark, K. A. Cortopassi, S. F. Hanser, B. McCowan, A. M. Ali, and A. N. G. Kirschel. 2011. Acoustic monitoring in terrestrial environments: applications, technological considerations and prospectus. Journal of Applied Ecology 48:758–767.

Brandes, T. S. 2008. Automated sound recording and analysis techniques for bird surveys and conservation. Bird Conservation International 18:S163–S173. Cambridge University Press.

Celis-Murillo, A., J. L. Deppe, and M. F. Allen. 2009. Using soundscape recordings to estimate bird species abundance, richness, and composition. Journal of Field Ornithology 80:64–78. Blackwell.

Celis-Murillo, A., J. L. Deppe, and M. P. Ward. 2012. Effectiveness and utility of acoustic recordings for surveying tropical birds. Journal of Field Ornithology 83:166–179.

Dawson, D. K., and M. G. Efford. 2009. Bird population density estimated from acoustic signals. Journal of Applied Ecology 46:1201–1209.

Depraetere, M., S. Pavoine, F. Jiguet, A. Gasc, S. Duvail, and J. Sueur. 2012. Monitoring animal diversity using acoustic indices: Implementation in a temperate woodland. Ecological Indicators 13:46–54.

Digby, A., M. Towsey, B. D. Bell, and P. D. Teal. 2013. A practical comparison of manual and autonomous methods for acoustic monitoring. L. Giuggioli, editor. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 4:675–683.

Ehnes, M., and J. R. Foote. 2015. Comparison of autonomous and manual recording methods for discrimination of individually distinctive Ovenbird songs. Bioacoustics 24:111–121.

Farnsworth, A., and S. A. Gauthreaux. 2004. A comparison of nocturnal call counts of migrating birds and reflecti v ity measurements on Doppler radar. Journal of Avian Biology 35:365–369.

Frommolt, K. H., and K. H. Tauchert. 2014. Applying bioacoustic methods for long-term monitoring of a nocturnal wetland bird. Ecological Informatics 21:4–12.

Goyette, J. L., R. W. Howe, A. T. Wolf, and W. D. Robinson. 2011. Detecting tropical nocturnal birds using automated audio recordings. Journal of Field Ornithology 82:279–287.

Haselmayer, J., and J. S. Quinn. 2000. A Comparison Of Point Counts And Sound Recording As Bird Survey Methods In Amazonian Southeast Peru. The Condor 102:887–893.

Hobson, K. a., R. S. Rempel, H. Greenwood, B. Turnbull, and S. L. Van Wilgenburg. 2002. Acoustic surveys of birds using electronic recordings: New potential from an omnidirectional microphone system. Wildlife Society Bulletin 30:709–720.

Holmes, S. B., K. A. McIlwrick, and L. A. Venier. 2014. Using automated sound recording and analysis to detect bird species-at-risk in southwestern Ontario woodlands. Wildlife Society Bulletin 38:591–598.

Joshi, K. A., R. A. Mulder, and K. M. C. Rowe. 2017. Comparing manual and automated species recognition in the detection of four common south-east Australian forest birds from digital field recordings. EMU 117:233–246. Taylor & Francis.

Kirschel, A. N. G., M. L. Cody, Z. T. Harlow, V. J. Promponas, E. E. Vallejo, and C. E. Taylor. 2011. Territorial dynamics of Mexican Ant-thrushes Formicarius moniliger revealed by individual recognition of their songs. Ibis 153:255–268. Blackwell.

Kirschel, A. N. G., D. A. Earl, Y. Yao, I. A. Escobar, E. Vilches, E. E. Vallejo, and C. E. Taylor. 2009. Using songs to identify individual mexican antthrush formicarius moniliger: Comparison of four classification methods. Bioacoustics 19:1–20. Taylor & Francis Group.

Mennill, D. J. 2011. Individual distinctiveness in avian vocalizations and the spatial monitoring of behaviour. Ibis 153:235–238.

Mennill, D. J., J. M. Burt, K. M. Fristrup, and S. L. Vehrencamp. 2006. Accuracy of an acoustic location system for monitoring the position of duetting songbirds in tropical forest. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119:2832–2839.

Pekin, B. K., J. Jung, L. J. Villanueva-Rivera, B. C. Pijanowski, and J. A. Ahumada. 2012. Modeling acoustic diversity using soundscape recordings and LIDAR-derived metrics of vertical forest structure in a neotropical rainforest. Landscape Ecology 27:1513–1522.

Pieretti, N., A. Farina, and D. Morri. 2011. A new methodology to infer the singing activity of an avian community: The Acoustic Complexity Index (ACI). Ecological Indicators 11:868–873.

Pijanowski, B. C., A. Farina, S. H. Gage, S. L. Dumyahn, and B. L. Krause. 2011a. What is soundscape ecology? An introduction and overview of an emerging new science. Landscape Ecology 26:1213–1232.

Pijanowski, B. C., L. J. Villanueva-Rivera, S. L. Dumyahn, A. Farina, B. L. Krause, B. M. Napoletano, S. H. Gage, and N. Pieretti. 2011b. Soundscape Ecology: The Science of Sound in the Landscape. BioScience 61:203–216.

Potamitis, I., S. Ntalampiras, O. Jahn, and K. Riede. 2014. Automatic bird sound detection in long real-field recordings: Applications and tools. Applied Acoustics 80:1–9.

Rempel, R. S., C. M. Francis, J. N. Robinson, and M. Campbell. 2013. Comparison of audio recording system performance for detecting and monitoring songbirds. Journal of Field Ornithology 84:86–97.

Rognan, C. B., J. M. Szewczak, and M. L. Morrison. 2009. Vocal Individuality of Great Gray Owls in the Sierra Nevada. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:755–760.

Rognan, C. B., J. M. Szewczak, and M. L. Morrison. 2012. Autonomous Recording of Great Gray Owls in the Sierra Nevada. Northwestern Naturalist 93:138–144.

Sidie-Slettedahl, A. M., K. C. Jensen, R. R. Johnson, T. W. Arnold, J. E. Austin, and J. D. Stafford. 2015. Evaluation of autonomous recording units for detecting 3 species of secretive marsh birds. Wildlife Society Bulletin 39:626–634.

Sueur, J., A. Farina, A. Gasc, N. Pieretti, and S. Pavoine. 2014. Acoustic indices for biodiversity assessment and landscape investigation. Acta Acustica united with Acustica 100:772–781.

Swiston, K. A., and D. J. Mennill. 2009. Comparison of Manual and Automated Methods for Identifying Target Sounds in Audio Recordings of Pileated , Pale-Billed , and Putative Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers Published by : Wiley on behalf of Association of Field Ornithologists content in a trusted digit. Journal of Field Ornithology 80:42–50.

Towsey, M., J. Wimmer, I. Williamson, and P. Roe. 2014a. The use of acoustic indices to determine avian species richness in audio-recordings of the environment. Ecological Informatics 21:110–119.

Towsey, M., L. Zhang, M. Cottman-Fields, J. Wimmer, J. Zhang, and P. Roe. 2014b. Visualization of long-duration acoustic recordings of the environment. Pages 703–712 in. Procedia Computer Science. Volume 29.

Tucker, D., S. H. Gage, I. Williamson, and S. Fuller. 2014. Linking ecological condition and the soundscape in fragmented Australian forests. Landscape Ecology 29:745–758.

Turgeon, P. J., S. L. Van Wilgenburg, and K. L. Drake. 2017. Microphone variability and degradation: implications for monitoring programs employing autonomous recording units. Avian Conservation and Ecology 12:9. The Resilience Alliance.

Venier, L. A., S. B. Holmes, G. W. Holborn, K. A. Mcilwrick, and G. Brown. 2012. Evaluation of an Automated Recording Device for Monitoring Forest Birds. Wildlife Society Bulletin 36:30–39. John Wiley & Sons.

Waddle, J. H., T. F. Thigpen, and B. M. Glorioso. 2009. Efficacy of automatic vocalization recognition software for anuran monitoring. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 4:384–388.

Wimmer, J., M. Towsey, P. Roe, and I. Williamson. 2013. Sampling environmental acoustic recordings to determine bird species richness. Ecological Applications 23:1419–1428.

Comparison of Spectrogram Apps

I took a dive into iPhone apps that produce spectrograms of recorded sound, with an interest in bird song (of course). I got into spectrograms looking at the figures in Handbook of Bird Biology. I’m mainly looking for something that I can match to Field Guide to Bird Sounds, with the thought that this could even be a useful field tool for the deaf/hard-of-hearing (D/HH) to enhance experience of the outdoors. I wasn’t willing to buy the super fancy apps with my limited knowledge. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the apps I tried.

Let me start with some disclaimers: I’m just starting to learn about sound analysis. From what I can gather, it seems that the best thing to do is get the highest quality recording possible (preferably with advanced equipment) and run it through a sophisticated program. Also, I’ve been testing these apps with a chickadee call from my computer speaker, which has its pros and cons…

  • pros
    • close sound source
      • maximize signal-to-noise ratio
      • clarity
      • volume
      • prototypical recording
    • control of background noise
  • cons: alteration of certain qualities of the sound from my relatively crappy laptop speaker, thereby affecting the resulting spectrogram

I’m in a bit of a bind, therefore, in testing the apps: in some ways, it’s the best bird call signal I can expect to get with my iPhone microphone, but I do wonder about the consequences to the spectrogram of the speaker. So, I decided to test it out with the fancier Raven software.

Screenshot 2017-11-11 15.23.41
Comparison of black-capped vireo song files: original recording vs. phone recording of that file’s playback from computer speaker. Top: sample audio file distributed with Raven Lite 2.0. Bottom: My iPhone 6s (iOS 11) recording of that file with the native Voice Memo app, played through my computer speaker. I then saved the file from my phone to Drop Box, and converted it to AIFF through iTunes with all default settings from selecting that converter.

Probably one of the weirdest effects in the phone recording from my speaker is the speeding up of the audio file. Also, notice the loss of some of the higher frequencies in the playback. All this to say, perhaps getting a raw recording of an actual bird on my iPhone will improve the spectrograms (and I’m sure even more so if I had a microphone).

Related, I am curious about the quality of the recorder in a given spectrogram app, because the recording software is bundled with the spectrogram app (or perhaps it uses the native phone recording functionality). Nonetheless, it was a bit of a relief (in a sense) that weeding out apps was not difficult based on design.

My Favorites (in order)

  • Spectrogram Pro ($2.99): This is how I generated the cover photo, and the app just real-time generates a spectrogram on the screen. Here are the settings I like…
    • S: I only need the spectrogram
    • 6 sec mode: this is the range of the x-axis on the phone screen (there are several options depending on your needs)
    • aud: those “heat map” colors
    • 512: neater lines in the graph
    • linear (for both scales)
  • Spectrum View (free): This seems to be a more sophisticated app, in that it allows you to choose various options for your sound analysis. There are lots of display options, etc. You can also import a recording from your phone into the app for analysis.

Not Worth the Download

At the time of this posting, these apps don’t make the cut for me.

  • Visual Audio: My main gripe with this one is that the spectrogram is backwards.
  • Spectrum Analyzer: The 1st thing you do when you open the app, unless you pay to upgrade, is watch an ad video. Next!
  • iSingad: not iOS 11 compatible
  • Spectro Real: I think this app is just an ad?
  • Voice Spectrogram: It’s weird and lags; to start fresh, you have to delete the history but that takes a long time even if you’ve made less than a minute of recording.
  • Finger Voice: There’s only a limited time you can record.
  • Sonocord ($0.99): Clunky, hard to navigate/slow and not many options.
  • Live Spectrogram ($1.99): Nothing beyond an ever-scrolling spectrogram, and less options than the above Spectrogram Pro.
  • Spectrograph ($9.99): It doesn’t seem compatible with the latest OS upgrade?

Out of my Budget

OK in reality these aren’t all “out of my budget,” but more my point that I’m not buying $100’s worth of apps just to compare them. (If you’ve bought one of these though, please comment your review!)

  • Music Spectrograph ($9.99)As the name implies, it’s geared toward music, so I get the sense that the bells and whistles you’re paying for might not be worth the extra cost for my purposes.
  • Audio Analyzer ($19.99): This is the one I’m most curious about trying.
  • SignalScope ($24.99): From the price tags here, this is probably fairly sophisticated, so I probably wouldn’t go down this road until I bought a microphone.
    • Pro ($74.99): It’s hard to tell from the description, but this might be the only one that actually produces a spectrogram!

My understanding is that an app probably won’t give you the output that’s as nice as anything in a professionally produced book figure. I’m wondering if at our point in smart phone technology, a real-time spectrogram produced within an app on a phone screen will have much standalone utility. In other words, with no auditory cues, is it realistic at this point to capture a sound with your iPhone mic and get a spectrogram that can be matched up to a figure in the book?

Please comment with your reviews of these (or any) smart phone apps for spectrograms!

Resources for Learning to Identify Bird Song

Like anything else, learning bird songs takes practice and close attention. Here are some resources and my experiences that may help guide you.

How I Learned

  • Mnemonic/Sound Pattern Recognition: When I took ornithology in undergrad, we used Peterson’s Birding by Ear which groups songs by characteristics and thereby teaches you to listen for broad characteristics, patterns and mnemonics. Thus, I’m a little biased and potentially a little “old-school.” Yet, I’d highly recommend this resource to start learning “how to listen” to bird songs.
  • Repetition of Bird Songs: Audio sources that include a compendium of bird songs with the bird species names, such as Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, let you replay the song until you can commit it to memory. Other collections of songs that don’t start with the bird species name can be used for quizzing yourself.
  • Quiz: The aforementioned Peterson’s Birding by Ear audio CD has tests at the end, and since then Larkwire has been released, which quizzes the listener with songs from groups of 4 species at a time. There is still demand for different quiz formats, though, that are feasible to implement with a little programming elbow grease!

A Newer Technique (in the sense of availability): Spectrogram analysis

We didn’t learn this when I took undergrad ornithology, but it’s my understanding that this is now more commonly taught. There are also now many more tools on the scene that make spectrograms of bird songs accessible.

  • Handbook of Bird Biology:  This was the newer textbook on the scene, again introduced after I took the class. Chapter 10 is titled “Avian Vocal Behavior” which is largely illustrated through spectrograms, and has links to online material.
    • Bird Academy: The online material for the textbook is freely available, and under the umbrella of this site.
  • Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America
  • Analysis Software
    • Raven Lite 2.0
    • Spectrogram Phone Apps: While it appears some of the automated bird song identification apps have some catching up to do, you could still potentially record the spectrogram of a call/song and compare it with the above book.

My Twitter Game: #NameThatBirdSong

I’ve started a game on Twitter, running weekly with the hash tag: #namethatbirdsong

Every Weds 12pm I’ll post a bird song, and you tweet your own original (or post for a friend with attribution) mnemonic device, that differs from the widely accepted mnemonics taught for the posted bird song (#altmnemonic) along with the game hash tag (#namethatbirdsong)! I’d love it if you use both tags, but you only need to use the game hash tag, to be sure I see it. So, for example, if I posted red-eyed vireo as the challenge bird for the week, I’m stealing this example answer from my friend Kate for what a tweet entry should look like:

“It sounds like it’s talking to itself. ‘Do I turn left here?’ ‘Yea it’s a left’… #namethatbirdsong”

You can answer until 11:59pm central time Weds, and if you don’t have an entry, you can vote on the day’s entries with “likes” for the tweets. I’ll compile the top 4 entries into a poll posted no later than 10:30am Thurs morning, and voting will be open until 3:30pm. The winner will be announced no later than 4pm Thurs.

Ecomusicology & Bird Song Mnemonics

Thanks to a conversation with my friend, Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, over Twitter, I learned that there’s an entire field of study that is poised to look formally into some of the concepts that have been nebulously floating about in my mind about how we process bird songs. Most recently, I’ve been interested in mnemonics, which are commonly used to describe and help people remember bird songs. There are common ones (some so common and relatively recent they comprise the modern English common names of some of our bird species) and ones that people make up in the field as they go. I always loved when my friends who were learning bird song would make up mnemonics as we were hiking, and I still wish I’d written them down somewhere back when! I experienced the same thing when I taught forestry summer camp, and students would come up with mnemonics when they first paid attention to a particular species song.

Mnemonics are commonly used because they generally work so well for us. My favorite resource to aurally learn bird song, Peterson Birding by Ear, relies heavily on mnemonic devices. There are mnemonics that are almost universally taught (e.g. “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” for white-throated sparrow, though even as I type that, there’s another very common one for that species that comes to mind). Even some that didn’t make their way to the current commonly used name for a given species are in our public American consciousness (e.g. “caw, caw” for the American crow; notice I said recent because the name “crow” probably did originate from a very old onomatopoeia). So, I’m interested in why some of these mnemonics became so popular, and why they were associated with particular sounds in our linguistic systems.

It’s unsurprising (yet no less nifty, in my opinion) that each spoken language or perhaps dialect has their own onomatopoeic representations of the same sound; for example, take the many representations of dogs barking in different languages (with the acknowledgement that different breeds prevalent in different areas do produce differing sounds, too). Thus, it begs the question of how/why certain syllables enter onomatopoeic representation, when as the previous linked list shows via transliteration, often the same basic sounds are available to a given language. Assuming that most of my readers are English-speaking, consider our onomatopoeia for a dog bark (“bow wow”) vs. the transliterated barks on the list.

Dr. Whitney introduced me to the works of a colleague of her husband, Dr. Alexandra Hui, via a link to her faculty page and I was excited to read some of the titles of her presentations in her CV (examples listed in the works cited); these are presentations I wish I could have listened in on, for sure! I look forward to learning more about the field of ecomusicology, and particularly how it relates to the etymology of our bird names and common mnemonics that persist in teaching today.

Works Cited

  1. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, Vanderbilt University, “From Vogelflöte to wichity wichity wichity: Standardizing the sounds of nature in the first decades of the twentieth century,” Nashville, TN, February 3, 2016.
  2. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Listening to Nature: Representing bird song, 1885-1945,” Atlanta, GA, September 14, 2015.
  3. Hui, Alexandra. “From Silence to Fee-bee fee-bee fee-b-be-be: the place of nature in the sonic environment, 1948-1969,” presented at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, April 3-7, 2013.

Birding w/my iPhone

In these days of tech addiction, it seems always a struggle to balance how much I should use my iPhone! “Modern day birding” is no help. 🙂 In fact, it’s the main reason I can’t justify deleting social media from my phone. Ironically, an activity that otherwise immerses us in nature is wrapped up in what some consider a boon on today’s society. Here’s how birding these days is inextricably linked to my iPhone…

  • Camera: documentation through binocular/phone-scoping photography
  • Facebook
    • banner notifications for whenever a friend posts to the state’s rare bird alert group
    • checking the state bird group to see if something didn’t get cross-posted
    • share my sightings with the state birders in a timely manner if need be
  • GroupMe: a text group for quick dissemination of bird info in our area to locals
  • eBird: eliminates the need for pen/paper and instantly submits data records online
  • Sibley
    • my field guide without the bulk, offline accessible
    • the “compare” feature
    • audio sound recordings attached to each species account

So, like many things, there are of course pros and cons. Cell phones have revolutionized info distribution: I’m more likely to see that rare bird with instant alerts that grab my attention when I’m sitting at home. Then, when I go out to look I keep getting instantaneous alerts about where it has moved so I can redirect my course. Therefore, technology helps my life list. It also increases quality of records and amount of info available with camera availability and microphone, which are easier to evaluate by others who weren’t present (and also revisit). I save paper and time by submitting straight to eBird from my phone. Quick reference means more certainty with an ID.

The con really isn’t specific to birding, just the thought that it sort of enables my tech habit. Birding is my top hobby, so I always want to be connected to info sources about it. This can be a slippery slope for me, as it provides an incentive to always have my phone with me and the ringer on. It gives me an excuse to be more tied to it, which makes me more likely to engage in deleterious (or at least unproductive) phone habits. I’m ever having to mindfully check my phone use, especially where I should disconnect!