Learning to hear, or how to have fun with your iPhone in the woods

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This weekend, a friend posted some pictures of wildflowers blooming on Facebook. I remembered that last spring when I went on a walk down the Daryl R. Karns Natural History Trails at Hanover, I saw a lot of trillium plants, but they had already bloomed. So this afternoon in between classes, I decided to head out to the trail to see if I could catch some trillium in bloom.

spring wildflowerWith all the cold weather, it’s still a bit too early, though I spotted some other flowers putting on a show. Just at the top of the trail, I could hear something rustling around in the leaves and the brush, making a lot of noise. I crawled up on a rock to check it out and found a couple of Eastern towhees–a male and a female–which explained the noise. Towhees spend a lot of time digging around on the ground and are known for making a lot of noise while they’re doing it.

Standing on my rock, I could also see and hear a cardinal couple singing to each other. A Carolina wren came by and added his voice to the little jam. It was quite noisy standing there listening to everyone, especially compared to the relative quiet farther down the trail.

Hearing and not hearing

If you are like me, birdsong is one of those things you both hear and don’t hear. This time of year, I am more apt to hear the birds singing because it seems like they have been silent for so long. This can’t actually be true, because many of the birds we hear don’t migrate. Neither cardinals nor Carolina wrens go anywhere in the winter. But as the days get longer in the spring, the birds seem to get distinctly noisier–a very welcome sound in March and April.

As you get used to their singing, it starts to fade out of your awareness. Their calls becomes the taken-for-granted background noise of life. You cease to be aware of the cacophony of birds singing. And if you are like me, the sound of birds singing is mostly just one undifferentiated noise. You hear birds singing. You do not hear a cardinal, a Carolina wren and a black-capped chickadee, because you cannot parse out each of those individual sounds any more than you can pick out the sound of one violin in the orchestra.

I have always wanted to be someone who can hear and identify individual birdsong. But I can count on two hands the number of birds in my repertoire. I can identify with certainty the calls of mourning doves, mockingbirds, crows (an easy one), hawks (though I couldn’t tell you the difference between a red-tailed hawk and any other kind), red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, turkeys, and Canadian geese. In the woods this afternoon, I knew the cardinal and the Carolina wren were singing because I could actually see them.

eastern towhee

Eastern towhee

It’s not at all too late to become someone who can identify birds by their song. It’s an odd thing, when you think about it, to walk through your life all the time hearing sounds around you and have no idea what they are beyond generic birds singing. I felt this today when I heard the call of one bird in particular. I can’t tell you what kind of bird it was. It’s call wasn’t frequent and I couldn’t see the bird in the trees making the noise. But it was such a familiar sound–a sound that took me back to laying on my back in my parents’ yard staring up at the clouds. It was the sound of summer for me, and I have no idea what the actual sound was.

Technology will save us all

Luckily, I have a daring and dangerous plan for becoming someone who knows more than seven bird calls. When I recently solicited advice on how to see a real, live owl, several friends suggested going into the woods and playing owl calls. Inspired by that advice, I wondered what would happen if I played cardinal or towhee calls. Since I had my iPhone with me, I was able to find out right then and there what happens when you play bird calls in the middle of the woods.

What happens when you play bird calls to actual birds is that they get kind of excited. I tried the Eastern towhee call first, and it definitely got him up off the ground. He flew right at me a couple of times, landing on a tree branch nearby to check me out. Then the female joined him. The cardinals did the same, though they also answered back. It got quite loud in my little spot in the woods for a while.

Neither the towhee nor the cardinal were as aggressive as mockingbirds, which will seriously come after you if get too close to their nest. But they were definitely interested in the noises I was making, and watching them swoop back and forth overhead was the kind of thing that makes you laugh out loud. You laugh partly because it’s funny and partly because you’re not sure if this was such a smart thing to do after all.

Afterwards, I felt the tiniest bit guilty. How would I feel if someone came into my living room with recorded sounds of my husband just to see how I’d react? Not so great, probably.

Will I try it again? Definitely. First because I imagine it’s much harder to forget the sound a particular bird makes when you have the vivid memory of it flying towards your head. So it’s useful for learning what different birds sound like. But also, it was just kind of exciting and cool.

I will not be trying it with mockingbirds or blue jays, though, because that just seems to be asking for it.

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