I stopped my cadre of 5th graders right under the tree where a songster was loud and distinct. “Listen to this fantastic bird, my friends,” I urged excitedly, and the group of 23 inner-city kids fell silent. After listening a few seconds I whispered, “This awesome bird sings his name. He’s called a Phoebe. Do you hear him sing “Phoebe” over and over?” Again, we all listen intently, and I see smiles creep across faces.
“Yea, I hear it.”
“That’s what he says.”
Other murmured phrases and nods of recognition ripple through my rapt audience.
I can’t really memorize bird song very well. I’m relieved to say I’m not the only one. The best way to distinguish and remember specific bird song is to translate it into English. It is not only easier to describe to kids (and adults) but recognizable in our brains.
There are a number of mnemonics that are commonly associated with certain birds. Here is a list of some birds you may hear this month, and the mnemonic of what their song sounds like:
American Robin – “cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheerily”
Yellow warbler – “Sweet Sweet, Sweet I am so sweet”
Eastern towhee – “Drink your teeeeeea”
Black throated green warbler – Zee Zee Zee zoo Zeee”
Barred owl – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Whip-poor-will – “WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL WHIP-poorWILL…“
Eastern Wood-Pewee – “Pee-ah-wee Pee-ah-wee”
Eastern Phoebe – “Fee-bbbbbe Fee-bbbbbe”
Black-capped Chickadee –
Warbling Vireo – “If I SEES you, I will SEIZE you, and I’ll SQUEEZE you till you SQUIRT”
Red-eyed Vireo – “Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Look up now. Do you see?“
Tufted Titmouse – “Peter-peter-peter. Peter-peter-peter.”
Carolina Wren – “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle.” (loud and fast)
Brown Thrasher – “Spring’s here, spring’s here, plant it plant it, in the ground, in the ground, cover it up, cover it up…” (doublet after doublet; each doublet seldom repeated)
Chestnut-sided Warbler – “very very very very pleased-to-meet-you” (quite fast)
Ovenbird – “teacher teacher teacher teacher” (with each “teacher” progressively louder)
Common Yellowthroat – “Which-i-ty which-i-ty, which-i-ty, which-i-ty
White-throated sparrow – “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” or “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada” (depending on your nationality of course)
Red-winged Blackbird – “Honk-a-reeeeee”
Eastern Meadowlark – “spring of the year”
American Goldfinch – “per-chick-a-ree”
Here are some resources to further your study of birdsong:
The Backyard Birdsong Guide, by Donald Kroodsma – an audio field guide. Lets you listen to the birdsong with a push of the button.
May the sound of a familiar songster bring a smile to your face too.
Memorial Day is approaching fast. It’s the unofficial start of the summer season. If the weather is warm, you will find the beaches at Cape Cod National Seashore filled with waders, swimmers, and sun lovers. If the weather is cool and stormy, the waves will teem with wet-suited surfers.
Should you find yourself at the Cape, and need a break from the sun and surf, check out the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station at Race Point Beach. Park staff and volunteers recreate the techniques first employed by the U.S. Lifesaving Service back in the mid 1800’s.
A strong offshore current known as “The Race” caused numerous ships to flounder as they rounded the tip of the Cape. Surfmen patrolled the beaches during stormy weather to spot and assist these ships.
When the word went out that a ship was in trouble, surfmen would gather. When the weather was so bad that surfboats could not be launched, a canon would be fired to deploy a line to the struggling crew. As testament to the importance of these waters for trade, instructions were sent with the line in multiple languages. These instructed sailors to affix the line to their mast and ride a breaches buoy to shore, skimming across the tempest.
The lifesaving stations had a 99% success rate along the shores of Cape Cod, saving over 175,000 lives.
In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutters Service joined to create the US Coast Guard. Today, these men and women continue the tradition, going out in the worst of weather and under the most difficult conditions, to assist sailors in trouble.
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