Have you noticed that after a while, the birds’ voices creep into your head? Like the Carolina wren’s teakettle litany that sounds like some other bird you just can’t name in the moment until you remember—oh, wren. Or the unmistakable call note of the eastern towhee, the conversations they don’t bother disguising. Or the shriek of the blue jays that leads you to a bemused raptor trying to disappear in plain sight. You don’t even have to be trying to learn. The songs drift in by osmosis.
Once you know the songs, a familiar (or distinctly unfamiliar) voice can pull you out of a conversation as fast as flashing crimson wings. When it’s warm enough to open the windows, I eat breakfast with one ear tuned in to the chorus in the bushes outside. More than one sentence has died coming out of my mouth, as some twittery chortle sounds from the trees and I call for silence so I can name the singer.
Sometimes I go for extra credit, and put in the time to learn specific songs. I’ll plug in my headphones and set the track for repeat so that the song drills into my head. “Where are you? Here I am. Where are you? Here I am.” It works, but only to a degree.
For me, there’s a disconnect between the sound waves of the recording, and the incarnate singing bird. I might have half a dozen bird calls floating around in my head like the chorus of a catchy song I can’t pin down. I know the words, but not the artist. At least not until I’ve seen the singer. I have a hard time attaching the voice to the species until I lay eyes on the bird itself: A flicker of wings behind a bush, a glimpse of yellow, a full-frontal view of his thrown-back head and wide open beak. Suddenly the song is embodied.
Maybe this happens to you. Maybe for you too, some of those first sightings are so memorable that they plant the songs into your psyche unforgettably. There are a quite a few songs I know this way. But I didn’t realize how deeply they’d rooted until I discovered I was ear-birding in my sleep.
The other day, I was dozing off the last few minutes before my alarm was set to go off (for the second time that day). The morning chatter of our yard birds poured in through the window, all background music to whatever dream I was having. Cardinals and grackles, catbirds, robins, song sparrows, the gulls that nap on the roof, a buzzy zezezeZeZE-TSUP. I bounced up in bed, wide awake. zezezeZeZE-TSUP. I knew that voice.
“That’s my favorite bird!” I whispered to my sleeping husband. He groaned and pulled the blanket over his ears. I jumped out of bed, grabbed a sweatshirt and my binoculars, and dashed out the door.
The buzzy song pulled me into the row of arborvitae surrounding the sump pond that drains our apartment complex. It’s a deep bowl of water surrounded by brush and tall trees, perfectly appealing to birds of all kinds. And at this very moment, the pond was perfectly appealing to warblers, like the northern parula that popped up: a fistful of a rainbow buzzing away on a vine ten feet away. My favorite bird, just as memorable as the first time I’d heard one sing in the warm light of a Maine sunrise. That time I got up before sunrise to find him. This time, he called me out of bed himself.
So I guess there’s birding by ear. And there’s learning by heart. And then I guess there’s birding by heart, because that’s the only explanation for how a tiny little parula woke me up out of sleep to say good morning.
Are there any bird songs so dear to you they’d pull you out of bed?
About the Author
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.