Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.

Five-Phrase Friday (12): Call It Bird Song

Happy Friday, Phrase Friends! This week’s post is for the birds and bird lovers.

Bird songs and calls. Do our descriptions of them constitute English phrases? Sometimes. But often, a string of letter sounds imitates what we’re hearing, a notation system known as phonetics. We also tend to anthropomorphize (ascribe human attributes to irrational things) to make sense of the foreign languages of animals. This becomes even more apparent when we use phrases and sentences as sound imitators.

Birders and ornithologists used to have only mimicking, phonetic and grammatical descriptions and the experience of their own ears by which to distinguish one bird song from another when the bird was not visible in the field. As a birder myself, I hated that! Usually, the pronunciations I found in the bird books would not match what I was hearing because the letter combinations they used would not be what I would have chosen–though I suppose I would be hard pressed to come up with a viable alternative.

Here are five examples of North American bird song represented by phonetic and grammatical mimicry:

  1. conk-a-ree – red-winged blackbird
  2. zeee-bzz-bzz-bzz – golden-winged warbler
  3. ree-bee-oo – alder flycatcher
  4. Who cooks for you?” – barred owl
  5. Drink your teeeea!” – eastern towhee

Sounds like nonsense, right? Hang on. There is method behind the madness. The choice of phrases and sentences often depends on how we tend to inflect and intonate the different syllables within the sentence. Also, the vowels seem to matter more than the consonants. Exceptions would be, for example, the harder nk and z consonant sounds that mark a transition in the song or call. Otherwise, the selection of softer consonants may seem rather arbitrary.

For instance, with the blackbird and flycatcher, why choose “r” instead of “l” or “d”? And why “b” and not “v” for the warbler? I’m sure they had their reasons, but it’s not as if the birds are actually pronouncing the letters just as humans do. Thus, you begin to see how inexact and problematic this method of identification can be.

Along with recording equipment, now they use pictograms to make visual representations of the sounds, and they write detailed descriptions of the sonic features of bird vocalizations, covering pitch, tempo, tone, volume, length, and quality. And it’s all been catalogued online for quick access. Because each bird often emits multiple song and call types to throw us off, technological advances like these have made bird identification for the non-scientist much, much easier–and fun!

Learn all about identifying birds by their songs and calls using modern techniques at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird song ID skills page or find a bird song ID app here for Android or here for iPhone. Other big names in birding include David Allen Sibley, the National Audubon Society, and Roger Tory Peterson.

To borrow some of Edward Lear’s rhymes about sparrow song, enjoy your “‘Twikky mikky bikky bee'” until next time.