One Photograph: By EAR

  This article appears in the Summer 2024 issue

Story and Photo by William Burt

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, at Nest Near Waskish, Minnesota, July 1999 ©William Burt.

“You can observe a lot just by watching,” noted the great 20th-century thinker, Yogi Berra; and he might have said with equal perspicacity that you can hear a lot by listening. But in truth not all of us much care to pick up on the goings-on of other, subtler lives about us, and of those that do, not all are gifted with the best of eyes—or ears.

When I once played my old friend D a few brief choral snatches from a new CD of Bach cantatas, he responded not with words of admiration for their beauty or the man’s acknowledged genius but, to my astonishment, with irritation.

“They’re all the same,” he said with obvious hostility. “Everything he wrote: it’s all the same!”

I held my tongue, and we moved on to other things. Some persons might take D for a dim bulb, but no, far from it; he’s a naturalist far better schooled than I in some respects, and little do I know of botany, for instance, that he hasn’t taught me. And in his facility for finding and identifying birds by eye, he is as keen as anyone. But when it comes to learning and distinguishing their songs and calls, and thereby telling birds “by ear”—in that, he frankly is a little slow.

I well recall one late fall day, now more than 40 years ago, when we were talking of the numbers of Pine Siskins passing overhead that year, and he confessed to having trouble picking out their calls from those of all the other southbound birds that had been streaming over.

“Early in the morning,” I chimed in, “almost anywhere along the shore. Just listen for the call that Peterson spells out as ‘clee-ip’.... and you’ll hear scads of them.” But when I next saw him, he just shook his head with unconcealed frustration. “I can’t get that ‘clee-ip’ (xxx)!” he said.

Poor D. So many ears don’t hear because they don’t much care to listen, but he listens. One spring day a few years back he told me that he’d had a nice male Black-and-white Warbler in his glass, and it had been so close that he could clearly see its slim bill open wide, as if the bird were singing its thin song; and then he realized: it was.

He realized that he had seen it sing, but hadn’t heard a thing.
Some years ago, when reading up on the Baird’s Sparrow—that most stirring of all singers on the Northern Plains—it dawned on me that some of our great bird men of the past must have had aural difficulties of their own. Those able to have truly heard the Baird’s high tinkling song described it with due musical appreciation as a “silvery little bell-song” (John Lane, of Manitoba);*1 and as both “clear, mellow, pure in tone” and “quite musical” (Canadians Cartwright, Short, and Harris);*2 and perhaps most lyrically of all as “a lovely, minor key little song, wistful and carefree at once, delicate as crystal, simple as breath” (Merrill Gilfillan).*3 But from still others come such baffling words as “insect-like” (L. B. Bishop);*1 and “very like that of the savannah sparrow” (Ernest Thompson Seton, no less!);*1 and simply “peculiar” (Elliott Coues).*1

“Insect-like”? “Peculiar”? Even that most devoted and appreciative of bird men, Arthur Cleveland Bent, could only write that the Baird’s Sparrow’s song was “somewhat intermediate between those (sic) of the savannah and grasshopper sparrow.”*1 I can only think that Mr. Bent had some real difficulty in perceiving the higher pitches, and perhaps some of the others suffered something similar.

And so it is for my friend D: he’s simply one of many who has difficulty hearing. While I can still hear the “squeaky wheel” notes of a Black-and-white or Blackpoll Warbler, I suspect it won’t be long before I can’t; and that’s unsettling. To miss out on all the living sounds out there—not to say Bach’s choral works—is both unthinkable and inevitable.
How best to learn the songs and calls of your home ground so well that you can name them in a snap?

That’s easy. When you hear one you don’t recognize you take off after it at once, identify the source by eye, and fix the sound-and-picture match in mind as best you can. And when you fail to recognize it once again, you take off after it again—and again, again, until you bloody well do remember it.

Would you prefer to give it a half-hearted try, and have to slog off through a tangled swamp again each time? Okay; then you have every reason to know unequivocally upon first hearing them that those insistent notes on the same pitch, let’s say, belong to a Prothonotary Warbler.

But what of the various “audio aid” recordings available today?

Don’t waste your time. They may help reinforce a known call in some cases, but to learn birds’ voices such that you can name them in the field with both celerity and confidence, there’s only the one way. In a brief preface to his every version of A Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson had put it plainly: “In learning bird voices (and some birders do 90% of their field work by ear) there is no substitute for the actual sounds.”

So in short if you don’t know it, chase it down.
What do you forgo, if you pay little notice to the songs and calls of birds?

You forgo the often best if not the only means of knowing just who’s out there, as it were, and where; and you forgo the sensory enjoyment posed by these most stirring of all natural sounds. To see it is to know but half the bird, and often not the better half; for the best singers tend to be the plain brown likes of thrushes, wrens, and sparrows, and there’s satisfying justice in that irony. What bright-colored songbird’s efforts could compete with the ethereal flutings of a Hermit Thrush or Veery, say, or the long tinkling fantasies of Winter Wrens?

Or the “silvery little bell-song”*4 of Baird’s Sparrow?
My eye once caught a jewel of an article in a small quarterly journal called The Oriole, which was (and is today) devoted to the birdlife of Georgia. The article was focused on the Bachman’s Sparrow, a bland-looking bird of southern pinelands thought by many to be the finest singer in all the South; and the author was one George Andrew Dorsey.

Unlike some articles you’re apt to find in such a publication, Mr. Dorsey’s was a frankly personal piece born of his long familiarity with the subject, and it voiced his deep appreciation for its song, which he described as “one of the most beautiful sounds in nature.” And in that, he’d get no argument from me. It’s an inventive, oftentimes surprising work of convoluted beauty, which the singer never sings in quite the same way twice.

I’d only recently become acquainted with the Bachman’s Sparrow, having spent some time down in the pine savannas of North Carolina’s Croatan National Forest, and I too was rather smitten by its song; so I’d found Mr. Dorsey’s article especially heartening, and wrote to tell him so. But my letter was returned unopened, with a single word penned curtly on the envelope in red: “deceased.”
I’m always pleased to learn of someone’s fondness for a certain bird, or a bird’s song (or a certain worthwhile anything, really); and so it was with Mr. Dorsey and the song of Bachman’s Sparrow. Another bird man of his stripe was Dr. Powell Cottrille of Jackson, Michigan, whom I first got to know when he was well into his eighties.

Powell and his late wife Betty were a team known widely for their knack in finding the most vexingly well-hidden nests, and thus establishing a number of “first state nesting” records: most of them in Michigan and Minnesota, and most for birds that nest in bogs. Such was their reputation that their company was sought by eminent ornithologists and photographers alike—and above all Eliot Porter, with whom they spent nine seasons in the field. “During many of his most productive years,” wrote Powell with no doubt a twinkle in each eye, “I held the enviable position of being Eliot Porter’s field companion, straight man, and slave. I was often the burr under his saddle and always, I am lucky to say, his friend.”*5

Betty served primarily as the team’s ears (she was a concert pianist), and Powell as its eyes; but when it came to his bog-nesting favorite, the demure Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, his ears were every bit as tuned in as his eyes. Its moss-enshrouded nest posed an especial challenge, but by the time I’d met him he’d found roughly 20(!); and the key to their discovery, he confided, was in knowing the bird’s calls, and in particular the female’s. While the male’s call is a snappy k’lick, k’lick, he noted, hers is a soft and almost melancholy p’wee, p’wee.

What he’d found so endearing about this gentle little bird was not only the mossy beauty of its haunts, but the solicitous and playful interaction of the mates—their “nuances of communication,” as he put it—which he could watch for hours on end, and often did. And best of all, he said, was that soft little song of hers: which is “so pretty that it’s always a surprise.”

My acquaintance with Powell Cottrille had been all too brief.

William Burt is a naturalist, photographer, and writer with a passion for wild places—especially marshes—and the elusive birds few people see. He is the author of four books, and his traveling exhibitions have been shown at some thirty-five museums across the US and Canada.

*1 In Bent, A. C. et al. 1968. Life Histories of North American Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Buntings, Towhees, Finches, Sparrows, and Allies, Part II. Washington, DC. US National Museum.
*2 1937. Monograph, Baird’s Sparrow (quoted in *1 above).
*3 1991. Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing.
*4 John Lane, in Bent, A. C. et al. (*1, above).
*5 1997. A Passion for Birds: Eliot Porter’s Photography. Amon Carter Museum. Fort Worth, Texas.

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