Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Singing Life of Birds

I attended a workshop this past Sunday: "Describing Bird Sounds" by Sylvia Gallagher and hosted by Pasadena Audubon Society. It was held at the beautiful Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Sierra Madre. The class was well attended (about 30+ showed up) and PAS provided a lovely spread of food both in the morning and at lunch.

Of course I arrived very early, and had brought my binoculars, so I went out on the nature trail to look for birds. I heard two California Thrashers singing back and forth and finally located one of them. It was a treat to watch the bird sitting atop a bush, head back, singing its heart out. And a perfect intro to the day's workshop!

If I had any doubt that the subject would be overly-technical or hard to understand, it was dispelled immediately; Sylvia was both personable and down to earth. She made the subject easy to learn and provided good examples to help get her points across.

Her lecture relied heavily on a software program called Raven Lite, which is available free at the Cornell Ornithology Labs website. With it, one can listen to the songs and calls of birds and see them on a wavegraph and sonogram, which helps to understand how the various notes, trills, and buzzes make up the total sound. The song can be manipulated in a variety of ways, too. It can be slowed down, various sections teased out for study, and sound samples can be archived for later use.

She gave us a very good handout which outlined the course enough that very little note taking was necessary (but of course I did anyway as that's they way I learn best). In the handout was a list of words that are used to describe the various aspects of a birds song or call, which is the standardized method used to describe what one hears in the field, and also enables a betterunderstanding of the various aspects of a particular sound. (It's not just 'loud' or 'soft', 'high-pitched' or 'low-pitched'.)

I have always been fascinated by bird song and how it is that birds create such beautiful melodies and unearthly cries and calls. Their secret lies in the magical and wondrous organ called the syrinx (pronounced "cy-rinks"). This organ, located at the base of the trachea, is where bird sounds are produced. Prior to the workshop I spent some time looking through my Ornithology textbook and researching the topic online. The results of my study yielded some amazing factoids and information, though I still find it hard to read stuff that comes from the results of animal experimentation.

All in all it was a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday. I learned a lot and have already spent some time playing around with Raven Lite. I also ordered one of the recommended books, "The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong" by Donald Kroodsma, who is one of the foremost experts on bird song. The book includes a CD of birds songs, which can also be used in conjunction with Raven Lite.

I already know a lot of birds by hearing their song or call, but I still get fooled once in a while. Studying this aspect of bird observation can be very helpful in the field when ID is difficult in other ways.

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