In May the natural world of Lake County, Illinois clamors for attention. Frogs peep, toads trill, insects buzz and chirp, but the all-stars of the show are birds. Perching songbirds, referred to scientifically as oscine passerines, are known for their amazing and extremely varied sounds. For many small and secretive species, their calls and songs are often the only way to identify individual birds within the chorus.
Shorter, non-musical bird calls are heard year-round. Calls are used in social interactions and as alarms. They are considered innate. However, scientists have determined that birds’ longer, melodic songs are learned in the first year of life. Birds use these spring songs, some containing several melodies, primarily in establishing territory and breeding.
Studies show that birds raised in acoustic isolation develop songs atypical for their species. But how do baby birds in the wild learn their species’ songs when surrounded by a cacophony? Research has shown that baby birds’ heart rates increase and they beg for more food when they hear their species’ songs. There seems to be an inborn ability to recognize their specific songs before learning how to belt them out.
Since humans are not born with this genetic advantage when it comes to recognizing avian songs, learning to identify birds by sound is tricky. Many budding birders assign a mnemonic device, typically a catchy phrase or saying, to a species’ tune. Below are some of the birds we are currently hearing in the Lake County Forest Preserves along with the mnemonic tricks.
Hover over a photo for more information. Click on a photo to hear the bird’s call:
Making identification by sound even trickier, there are a number of excellent mimics in the bird world. Mimics sing a playlist from their avian, and even amphibian, neighbors. Male mimics with longer, more varied songs are able to attract more females and have higher reproductive success. The theory is that a large repertoire of songs proves that the male is older, possessing longevity and survival skills desirable to pass on to offspring.
The 2014 spring issue of our Horizons newsletter features birdwatching with tips to get started and suggestions for where to search for various bird groups. Our 2014 summer issue of Horizons, page 4, summarizes the results of a massive 14-year study of breeding birds in Chicago conducted by the Bird Conservation Network and Chicago Audubon Society.
Eager to get out and explore? Join us for a Free Bird Walk, or simply go outside and listen to the songs all around you. Now, when you hear the birds telling “Old Sam Peabody” to “cheerily” “drink his tea!” you will know exactly who is singing!