Imagine that there’s a hidden channel of communication, a short-wave frequency that sits unnoticed next to our own band of human megahertz and that is used by members of an alien species to converse with one another. Imagine we can listen in. Because we can. We’ve just trained ourselves not to.
I’m talking about birdsong, a language I’ve been teaching myself over the past few spring migrations and in which, this year, I have finally started to achieve a stumbling, tourist-with-phrasebook fluency. It’s one thing to hear a caw and think that’s a crow or hear a honk and think that’s a Canada Goose. It’s another entirely to catch a sewing-machine trill on the wind and instantly jump to junco (high and airy) or Chipping Sparrow (sharp and mechanical) or Pine Warbler (liquid and musical). Don’t get me started on the vireos.
It helps to have a birding Yoda, and that’s where Hardcore Jim comes in. In real life, he’s a respected doctor and medical researcher at MGH, a good friend married to an old schoolmate of mine. When I first met him, he was bike commuting into downtown Boston while wearing aviation goggles. In a blizzard. Thus the name. If I’m a pretty decent B-level birder after 30-plus years, Hardcore Jim’s a PhD — the kind of guy who takes online courses in sparrows for fun and who downloads bird-song quiz apps to his phone. He has, to put it mildly, a hell of an ear.
After tramping through field and bog with Jim over the years — and hitting the green spaces of the western suburbs every morning during this migration season of the Great Pandemic — an aural taxonomy is finally starting to cohere in my head. There are a number of birds that sound like an American Robin, for instance, and only one of them is a robin. I am at last intuitively grasping that what to my ears is a slightly brain-damaged robin endlessly repeating itself high in a tree is in fact a Red-eyed Vireo, and that what appears to be an overconfident Type A robin banging away is actually a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and lucky you are to see one with its bloody ax-murderer’s bib.
I heard a clear two-note whistle two yards over on May 1 and thought without thinking that the Baltimore Orioles were back for the year, only glimpsing their black-and-orange team uniforms later that day. And the molten twitter of the goldfinches at my feeder — a sonic correlative to their bouncing flight paths — has become as familiar a sound as my neighbor’s saxophone. (It’s fine; he’s a professional.)
Hanging with Hardcore Jim is like going on a picnic with Julia Child — you immediately up your game. I’m finally distinguishing between Song Sparrow (a count-three of notes and then a traffic snarl), Savannah Sparrow (dry and buzzy), and Swamp Sparrow (assertive trill). I realize now I’ve been hearing Carolina Wrens my entire life without knowing that that cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger ringing through suburbia was them. The sound of someone impatiently tapping a tiny car horn — be-bep be-bep — was the only clue that a Virginia Rail was in a stand of reeds three feet away. I stood transfixed, listening to a Blue-headed Vireo pose his standard questions — What’s up? How you doing? Yes, you. Why the hat? — until his spectacled face popped into view.
All this makes me happy in a way very little does these days. I’m learning to see with my ears.
It takes effort, because humans privilege sight over sound as a matter of course. And yet not so difficult: Who hasn’t sat in a quiet place, at a quiet time, and opened themselves up to the sound of the world? Trying to hear every rustle and mew, the murmur in the next room and the chatter in the treetops and the workmen a half mile off and, beneath or around it all, the barely perceptible hum of being. The more you strain, the less you hear; oddly, the more you subtract yourself from the equation, forgetting who it is that’s listening, the wider and more varied the range of sensations you’re able to perceive. It helps to think of yourself as an immense receptive device and little more — a giant ear, connected to nothing.
This is how some of us have learned to come to birds — as passive interfaces to presence. Those who become converts, who see in this particular biological class of Aves a way of appreciating the richness of things, tend to remember the bird that turned the trick — not the first bird they saw but the first bird they saw. For me, it was a Common Yellowthroat in a foggy field on Cuttyhunk Island in 1989, taunting witchety-witchety-witchety in his Beagle Boys mask. Jim says his “spark bird” was a flock of lowly Rock Doves — you call them pigeons — in London’s Trafalgar Square when he was 13. Whatever: It’s the gateway drug. Suddenly something you’ve looked at all your life is revealed in unique and infinite splendor.
As with looking, so with listening. Learning to distinguish among species of wood warbler, each with its specific song and call note, is an exertion of memory assemblage and assortment, like learning Latin or collecting antique glassware. You have to work at it, and there’s pleasure in that, getting to the point where the lonely flute-like beauty of a Hermit Thrush immediately accesses a different chamber of one’s mental sorting room than the shrill lifeguard whistle of an Eastern Phoebe, which occupies an adjoining but not identical chamber to the Eastern Towhee’s demand that you drink your TEA already.
To stand in a field and hear an irritated sneeze — fitzBEW — and know that the dull gray bird clinging to a reed is a Willow rather than an Alder Flycatcher is a pleasure that goes beyond mere cataloging. It’s a recognition of a being distinct from other beings, a separate tile in the mosaic, without which the mosaic would be a blur. The harder we listen, the more sharply each tile comes into focus and the more we glimpse the big picture — the really big picture, the one we’ll never stand far enough back to see. But birdsong is what that picture sounds like.