A pine warbler. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

The curtain rises, the opera begins. Although a few songbirds arrived in April, May is when the headlong rush to procreate drives the remaining songbirds here. They sing an aria from every tree.

It can be hard to identify birds you see. It’s easier to identify the birds you don’t see. Birds in the treetops may avoid being seen, but a bird that makes a noise can’t avoid being heard. You don’t even need to move your feet.

Many (most) experienced birders confess to being “rusty” in the spring, struggling to remember all the bird songs they knew so well last summer. In years gone by, I used to tune up my ears at the start of the season by re-listening to old birding-by-ear cassette tapes, and later CDs. Now, a few leisurely walks on noisy mornings are sufficient.

For fun, I tried something new this year. I took an online course from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, entitled “Bird Song Basics: Getting Started with Birding by Ear.” You might think my birding-by-ear skills are too advanced for a basic course. You’d be right. But it was a good warm-up for spring, and good exposure to alternative means of learning bird songs.

Nobody should be embarrassed by their own birding-by-ear skills, or lack thereof. Ever. The course exposes students to bird sounds across North America, from coastal Maine to an Alaskan island. Let’s just say I aced the Maine coast, but when I listened to the western birds, I promptly sank into quicksand. Ouch.

The Cornell course is heavy on technique, with precise use of terminology describing tempo, pitch, volume, rhythm, trills and tones. It uses spectrograms to visually represent each song, reinforcing the audio impression. Since the aim is to teach techniques for identifying and remembering bird songs no matter where you are, these are useful tools.

One of the best reasons to classify bird songs goes unmentioned. When you are trying to identify a bird by ear, and you can lump the song you hear into a category like “trill,” you can eliminate from consideration all the birds that don’t trill. For instance, hundreds of species nest in Maine, but only pine warbler, swamp sparrow, chipping sparrow and dark-eyed junco trill well. You’re selecting from four birds, not 300. Way easier.

In past years, I’ve enjoyed listening to audio presentations. The “Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region” and “Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central (Peterson Field Guides)” are still available on CD. These rely more on teaching by grouping. That is, they group similar sounding birds together, pointing out the recognizable differences between them.

Both CDs and the Cornell online course advise using mnemonics to remember songs: mental tricks to aid memory. For instance, the song of the white-throated sparrow is universally said to sound like “Old Sam Peabody.” The ovenbird sings “Teacher Teacher Teacher.” That’s useful. My memory is so bad, I can’t even remember how to spell mnemonics.

The Cornell course ends with a recommendation that people try Merlin, their free bird identification app. I thoroughly agree. Stop what you’re doing and download it to your smartphone right now. You can finish reading this column later.

Merlin is uncannily accurate, especially considering that birds are as likely to mess up their own songs as people are. Merlin isn’t always right, and its identifications should be taken as strong suggestions rather than gospel, but it beats anything else I’ve ever seen.

On the whole, I found the online course to be insightful. I confess, though, when I teach birding-by-ear, I don’t use much of their terminology. Cornell defines a trill as a series of similar notes or phrases, repeated too fast to count and often at the same pitch. That doesn’t work in my head. I divide such songs into trills and buzzes, buzzes being faster than trills. But if the Cornell definition works for you, great! Different folks, different strokes.

I also tend to learn songs based on their similarity to other songs. For instance, the songs of Nashville and Tennessee warblers are similar, and the trick is to remember the difference between them. That works for me. Your job is to figure out what works for you.

“Bird Song Basics” is one of a couple dozen courses available through Cornell at Academy.AllAboutBirds.org. It costs $39.99, and takes about three hours to complete.

Apparently, I am now sufficiently proficient at birding-by-ear. I have an official graduation certificate from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to prove it.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.