Nature Journal: Go birding to learn species, vocalizations – Citizen Times

Although bird identification can be perplexing — baffling at times — for even the most accomplished birders, the principles of identification are relatively simple.  We recognize birds by their visual appearance and by their vocalizations.
Birds have two basic kinds of vocalizations. Call notes are given by both males and females of the same species year-round in order to stay in touch with one another or express alarm. For instance, the rufous-sided towhee (a common permanent resident in Western North Carolina) seems to whistle its name “tow-heee” in all seasons. Then during the breeding season, the male will emit the vocalization we call song in order to establish a breeding territory, attract a female, and warn all other males out of that territory. In the male towhee’s case, this song sounds for all the world like “drink-your-tea” to human ears.
The phrases birders associate with specific calls and songs for various species are known as “mnemonic devices.” These allow one to readily identify a bird without ever seeing it at all. In the world of birding identification by either sight or sound have equal value. You can find the mnemonics for most species in a good field guide and the various electronic identification aides now available will allow you to hear them again and again. But nothing beats going out with local birding groups to learn the mnemonics for the species in your area.
Visually we recognize birds by their silhouettes, flight patterns, and distinctive markings. As children we learned from our parents to recognize blue jays, robins, cardinals, goldfinches, crows, by their distinctive plumage colorations.
One area of bird identification that is particularly rewarding is learning – where possible – to recognize males and females of the same species. Like humans and numerous other animals, some birds are clearly dimorphic; that is, the sexes can be visually determined at some distance, especially if you have binoculars.
The sexes of crows, ravens, blue jays, etc., cannot be determined even with binoculars by most of us. A trained ornithologist, of course, can sex a bird in hand by examining its sexual parts. Perhaps a third of the common birds in WNC are clearly dimorphic.
It’s great fun to go out and see how many identifications you can make in a given day of both the male and female of a species. Cardinals, rufous-sided towhees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, house finches, red-winged blackbirds, and numerous other species are a piece of cake. You won’t have any doubt which sex you’re seeing. Others -like the numerous warblers – will be more of a challenge. Sometimes the differences in coloration or marking between the two will be very slight.
The male and female orchard and Baltimore orioles that breed in WNC are very interesting to observe. The male orchard oriole is black with deep chestnut underparts.  The male Baltimore oriole is black with flame orange underparts. The females of both species are startlingly different. Their upperparts are olive brown with two white wing bars while underparts very yellowish. The underparts of female Baltimore orioles are somewhat orangish as opposed to the somewhat greenish appearance of the orchard oriole’s underparts.
Happy birding!
George Ellison is an award-winning naturalist and writer. His wife, Elizabeth Ellison, is a painter and illustrator who has a gallery-studio at 155 Main St., Bryson City. Contact them at or or write to 3880 Balltown Road, Bryson City, NC 28713.