Name that bird's tune

For some people, it's easier to identify what a bird looks like than what it sounds like.

The whistling rose clear and bright from the pear tree. It floated into the kitchen. I stopped stirring the soup. What kind of bird was that? I peered out the dining room window over the head of Malcolm, the gray tabby, who was staring intently at the tree. But I couldn't see anything.

The bird chirped and trilled exuberantly for the next half hour. Finally, I set the pot to simmer and went upstairs. The limbs of the pear tree reached to within a foot of the guest-room window. I knelt on the window seat and was treated to the sight of a male cardinal in all his scarlet splendor, belting out his repertoire.

Once I knew what cardinals sounded like, I heard them in the woods, as I walked to work, and, of course, from the heights of my backyard pear tree. I loved knowing that a cardinal was nearby. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it. It added a new dimension to my enjoyment of birds.

I was a casual bird-watcher and could identify all I saw in my garden: wrens, sparrows, goldfinches, mourning doves, crows, jays, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and, on occasion, rose-breasted grosbeaks. I recognized terns on beach strolls and red-winged blackbirds on country rambles. I was proud when I identified the small bird of prey who spent a winter morning in our hedge. It was a merlin.

Perhaps because I'm a visually oriented type, I'd never paid much attention to birds' songs. My auditory skills have never been strong. Bird song seemed to be an impenetrable code. As I pulled weeds in my garden, birds jabbered all around me. But if I couldn't see them, I didn't pay any attention.

But now I knew one song. Surely I could learn more.

I tried matching tune to bird each time I heard a trill. This method taught me that the friendly chickadee has a varied play list. I also learned that the most interesting songs were coming from leafy treetops, from the beaks of invisible birds.

So I broke down and bought a set of bird-song identification tapes. They became a soothing backdrop to my bathroom cleaning chores, and I played them as I drove in the car. Sometimes I would recognize a melody or twitter on the tapes. But mostly, the songs were unfamiliar to me. I had never heard the distinctive, flutelike call of a thrush, for example.

As I listened, I tried to connect the sound with an image of the bird in my head. But that wasn't much fun.

I couldn't even make sense of the "translations" of bird song offered on the tapes. The barred owl is supposed to say, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"

Oh, really?

One day, I heard strange sounds coming from the woods. I wondered if it could be a ruffled grouse, like the one on the tapes. It was not until someone told a story about a wild turkey in the neighborhood that I realized I had heard gobbling.

My cause was hopeless, I decided. I set aside the tapes and vowed just to enjoy watching the birds.

A few weeks later, my husband and I were strolling on a forest trail. No birds were visible, but gentle twittering drifted out from the woods. If only I had been able to learn bird song, I thought, I would know which birds were there.

As if in response to my thoughts, a dulcet tone rang out above the gentle babble. "Wood thrush!" I blurted out.

Well, maybe. But I could say with certainty that it was not a ruffled grouse. That had to be some kind of progress.

The bird sang again as we walked on. I smiled to myself. What a beautiful sound!

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