Many years ago (I am not going to say how many), I met a great group of birding friends. We mostly traveled on group birding trips to places like Cape May, Delaware, the eastern shore of Maryland, Texas and Virginia. We also attended several Midwest Birding Symposiums and we would meet in Florida for trips before I moved here.
I learned a lot from this group. They were awesome birders, and back then some were learning just as I was. We are still in communication, and we all are still birding.
One of the fun things they did was use mnemonics to identify the birdsong or bird call. Mnemonics are phrases that help us identify something. Several of my friends were amazing birders and could tell the bird with a few notes of song. But most are not that lucky. I am not one of the lucky ones who can recognize a lot of bird calls; just some. So I like mnemonics, which are fun to use and easy to remember.
One of the very first and easiest phrases to learn is the call of the barred owl: “Who cooks for you?” Most birders know this phrase. One I use a lot here in Florida is “Get your beer, Chuck.” If someone is not familiar with mnemonics, they may think I am an alcoholic screaming out for booze. But it’s the call of the white-eyed vireo. It is also quite distinct.
The Carolina chickadee says its name: “Chickadee-dee-dee.” I’m sure you’ve heard it. Right now, the tufted titmice are at my feeders. I hear them first, as they call “Peter, peter, peter.” We usually hear the great crested flycatcher first and then see it. The call is “Wee-eep, wee-eep.” It is quite distinct.
Of course, all birders recognize the eastern phoebe as it raspily says its name: “Fee-bee, fee-bee.” Sometimes we don’t even see the phoebe — but its call is so distinct, birders just write it down as a heard bird.
Just on our last field trip we listened to the Carolina wren as it melodically called “Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.” We hear the common yellow-throat here quite often, calling “Witchety, witchety, witchety.”
Thank you to the chuck-wills-widow for saying its name and also thank you whip-poor-will. The chuck-wills-widow is here year around, and the whip-poor-will is here only during the winter.
Often we hear the loud screams of the red-shouldered hawk: “Kee-ahh, kee-ahh.” They may even get louder when the blue jays are chasing it screaming “Queedle, queedle, queedle!”
One of my personal favorite bird calling activities is answering back to the fish crows’ “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” which forces me to answer, “Unh-uh, unh-uh.”
The great horned owl calls out at night and asks “Are you awake?” Then it answers the question for you. The call will be heard as “Are you awake? Me too.”
Not all birds are known for mnemonics. Our Florida state bird is the famous (seen on every street sign pole) northern mockingbird. Since this bird copies other birds’ songs, we can recognize the call by its pattern: Three notes then four notes, three notes then four notes.
Of course you’ll need a good imagination or maybe the continual use of these mnemonics to recognize them. I am usually the first one to call out, “Get your beer, Chuck” when I hear the white-eyed vireo. It is so clear to me that I can’t tell you any other call for this Florida-area bird.
I hope you’re not scratching your head right now wondering what I’m talking about. I guarantee from now on while you’re birding you’ll be listening for these phrases. Have fun with mnemonics. If you are having a difficult time, make up your own words for that bird call and you will not forget it.
There are hundreds of phrases for bird calls, and they may differ from region to region. Whether you are a backyard birder or go on major birding trips, these mnemonics will come in handy. Good birding! “Cheer, cheer, charmer” (or so says the eastern bluebird).
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.