Bird Vocalizations of the Month
A Column by our Graduate Assistant from the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy
I am delighted to introduce a new, monthly column highlighting the songs of birds found right here in the Bay Area. The principle author of this series is our very own graduate assistant Ore, who works part-time with us here in the Education Division. Ore is a first-year graduate student in Ecology and Systematic Biology at San Francisco State University, and is completing his research in the lab of California Academy of Sciences’ Curator of Birds and Mammals John Dumbacher.
Ore comes to us from the world of music, having studied piano as a child and in college. After moving to the Bay Area, he became fascinated with local bird sounds, and set about trying to teach himself to recognize local birds by call. One thing led to another, and an interest in birds led to coursework in biology and ornithology, and eventually an interest in research. Ore feels that an awareness of bird sounds can enhance one’s enjoyment of the natural world, and increase awareness of local diversity. With a keen ear, a good grasp of our local avian friends, and a voice that speaks to teachers and students alike, he’s a perfect writer for this column. We’ll post a new species each month!
I asked Ore a few simple questions to introduce our readers to the world of birding:
There must be hundreds of bird species that travel through the Bay Area. How will you go about choosing the 12 to be highlighted this year?
Each month, I will aim to choose a bird likely to be found at that time of year. I will focus on common birds, and those that may be easy to find, or particularly fun to see or hear. I will make an effort to include a wide diversity of birds, although I’m partial to small land birds!
What is the difference between a song and a call?
This may seem like a simple question, but it is not! Researchers have defined “song” in different ways. The most common definitions focus on function. For example, a “song” may be a vocalization produced by a bird trying to attract a mate or defend a territory. Often, but not always, such vocalizations are relatively long and complex. However, some birds have lengthy, complex vocalizations that do not fit into this functional definition of song. The term “calls” generally refers to short, simple vocalizations with other functions, such as keeping in touch with members of a flock, or warning other birds that a predator is nearby.
Should our readers aim to listen to bird vocalizations at any particular time of day? And do the seasons play a role?
While diurnal birds (those active during the day), may vocalize at many times during the day, and even occasionally during the night, they are often most vocal early in the morning, and at dusk. At dusk, however, birds are often difficult to see! I would say, be opportunistic! Aim to pay attention to sounds in general, so that when a bird happens to call or sing, you’ll notice it. However, it might pay to be especially attentive in the morning, on the way to school, for example.
As far as season of the year, the greatest shear amount of bird song may be heard in the spring, when males of many species defend territories and/or try to attract mates. However, different assemblages of birds occur in the Bay Area at different times of the year, and some vocalizations may only be heard in winter, when certain species occur here that leave in the spring to breed further north.
Many of our readers are teachers or informal educators. Where should they begin to look and listen for birds?
Beginner birdwatchers, unfortunately, are often quickly discouraged. Finding birds can be hard, especially when you have little experience in it. I remember, during my first winter in California, being taken by my sister and a friend of hers to Point Reyes Bird Observatory to look for birds. We had heard that birds are especially active in the morning, so we set out early—very early: 4:00 am! After two hours of driving on winding roads that left both my sister and me ready to retch, we reached our destination, and proceeded to walk about in the cold and dark. We saw nothing and didn’t hear a peep! Within twenty minutes my sister had already declared that she had “begun to doubt her ability to find birds.”
I had much more luck being less ambitious! I carried around a pair of binoculars, and stopped to look every time I heard or saw a bird. Where did I look? Everywhere: on my way to work or the grocery store, in local city parks… Eventually, I joined local organized bird walks, and learned a great deal from more experienced watchers. I think my advice, again, is be opportunistic! And don’t let yourself be discouraged!
What are your favorite resources for beginning birders in the Bay Area?
The best resource for me as a beginning birdwatcher was the birdwatching community. The Bay Area has one of the highest densities of birdwatchers in the world. If you have time, join one of the many bird walks led here. The East Bay Regional Park District hosts various bird walk series. Unfortunately, these often take place on weekdays, making it difficult for teachers to participate. However, they can certainly be made use of during the summer. Many local Audubon Society chapters organize bird walks as well. A list of Bay Area Audubon Society chapters with links can be found here.
There are several local listservs that one can join dedicated to field observations of birds. While many of these focus on exciting or unusual finds, they may also include trip lists, which could give you an idea of what birds can be expected where and when. Sialia compiles postings for all the lists in California, and maintains them for twenty days from time of posting.
Finally, a fun way to learn about birds is to browse some of the many identification guides available on the web and in print. Both the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center maintain webpages dedicated to identification of North American birds, complete with descriptions, range maps, and often photographs and sound recordings.
Printed field guides are also fun to flip through—one can use the range maps to quickly form an idea of what birds are likely to be found in the Bay Area at what rough time of year. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America has been a sort of standard for many years. Recently, David Allen Sibley has published several much-acclaimed guides with his own drawings.
We hope this series will encourage you to notice wildlife right outside your home, schoolyard, or office. Check out our latest entry – Female vocalizations in birds!
And as always, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment or question.
June 27, 2009: Female vocalizations in birds
May 29, 2009: Which hummingbird did we spot?
May 1, 2009: Chicks of the season
April 22, 2009: California Towhee
April 24, 2009: Update on California Towhees
March 24, 2009: Mid-March Medley
February 26, 2009: Allen’s Hummingbird
January 28, 2009: Ruby-crowned Kinglet