For the Birds: No simple answers in birding

Photo by Chris Bosak A Tufutaced Titmouse perches on the edge of a birdbath in New England, fall 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Tufutaced Titmouse perches on the edge of a birdbath in New England, fall 2015.

When it comes to birdwatching, there are very few simple answers.

What does a cardinal look like? It seems like a question that would have a simple answer. It’s a medium-sized songbird with a crest, thick and colorful bill, and beautiful red plumage. But, of course, that’s only half — or even less than half — of the answer. Female cardinals do not fit that description and neither do immature cardinals.

So, there is a simple answer to that question, but it is not the complete answer. The full answer is longer and more complicated.

Now, if someone asked what a cardinal sounds like, then it becomes even more complicated. Like many birds, cardinals have a call and a song. In fact, cardinals have many songs. You could simply say the cardinal’s call is a short, high-pitched chip and that their song is a loud whistle. But to fully describe what a cardinal sounds like requires a much more lengthy answer.  

The bird that I find rather complicated is the tufted titmouse. You wouldn’t think titmice would be complicated as they appear to be rather inconspicuous. Describing what they look like is easy enough as the males and females look alike. But, describing what they sound like opens up a whole new can of worms.

The most common and well-known song of the titmouse is the loud and clear whistled “peter peter peter.” But that is only a fraction of the story. The titmouse has many other vocalizations.

Even the “peter peter peter” song has several variations. It also has a two-note “keep her” song with the “her” descending. It has a harsh, scolding call somewhat reminiscent of an excited house wren. Then there’s the high-pitched “see-see” call. Finally, there’s a song that sounds a lot like a black-capped chickadee, which is extra confusing because they often travel with chickadees.

Who knew a simple bird like a titmouse could be so complicated? Learning to “bird by ear” is difficult enough, but when a single bird has half a dozen or more vocalizations, the challenge becomes greater.

Last week I wrote about the Merlin birding app that recognizes bird sounds in the wild. The other day I was sitting in the back of my truck having lunch at work. I back into the parking spot so I’m facing the woods at the edge of the lot. There are buildings behind me, but I feel as if I’m sitting in the middle of the woods.

I heard a bird song that I didn’t recognize. I knew it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I launched the Merlin app and started a recording. It immediately picked out the bird as a tufted titmouse. Damn, I thought, for as long as I’ve been birding, I should have known that. But it wasn’t the common “peter peter peter”  song or the chickadee-like song. It was the “keep her” song. I don’t hear that one often enough to associate it with titmice. Thankfully, the app bailed me out.

I have a feeling it won’t be the last time the app bails me out. Birding is never as simple as it seems.

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