Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the woods and fields around my house. My brothers and I became familiar with the vegetation and wildlife that surrounded us, but we had little instruction about it. What little instruction we had was from people like us who made up what they didn’t know. My grandmother taught us, for example, that the local skink is a scorpion, and that our harmless sumac is Poison Sumac (pronounced shoe-make around here).
Over the years I have sporadically looked at field guides to birds, trees, and wildflowers, but I have a very imperfect knowledge of the scientific or even common names of what I see in the wild.
Add to that a certain tone deafness when it comes to bird calls, and you perhaps can understand my confusion and frustration when I try to identify the birds that share my neighborhood.
Even when I am confident of an identification, I often embarrass myself. Once, I invited some of Joyce’s male relatives to listen to that “hoot owl” as a group of us walked on her grandmother’s farm, only to be met with outright guffaws. How was I to know a mourning dove was sitting in the field near us? They sound pretty much the same to me.
Field guides to birds are no help, with their incomprehensible conversions of bird sounds into what purport to be human analogues. Can you tell the difference between po-two-weet and to-few-meat? Maybe Roger Tory Petersen could, but I haven’t got a clue. I was pretty good with bob white and whip poor will because of the syllables and the fact that I heard them almost daily when growing up. But unfortunately, their numbers have declined and I rarely hear them anymore.
Taking pity on me, Joyce bought me a CD of common bird sounds, thinking it would help to actually hear the sounds.
Imagine my frustration when I learned that each bird makes many different sounds, depending on the situation, such as twilight territorial warnings, songs to attract a mate, or alarm calls. And there are variations among each category. For instance, an eastern bird sounds different from the same species in the west, north differs from south, etc. In other words, birds can pretty much sound as they darn well please. The birds on my CD are obviously not from around here.
Today I heard an odd bird sound as I was taking a walk. It sounded like an alarm call, but I couldn’t remember hearing anything like it. I stared intently into the tree where the sound originated (any neighbors who saw me drew their own conclusions on my intentions, but no one called the police as far as I know). Finally a woodpecker flew away, cursing me mightily as he headed for the nearby pine forest.
Now as far as I can tell, this is same woodpeckers who spends a good deal of time chipping insects from under the bark on my pine trees. I’ve heard him call in a number of situations, including what I would consider called for alarms. Either he was using the local dialect of one street over today, or my inability to distinguish and remember bird sounds is worse than even I thought.