Grosbeaks are among a group of birds known as songbirds, which includes sparrows, warblers, wrens, goldfinches and ravens. This photo by Curtis Mix was submitted for the 2011 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest. - Photo courtesy of Curtis Mix

Learning bird calls takes time in the field

The forest is alive with song for a few more weeks, and the diversity of song can be overwhelming, just ask my students. I ask them to learn more than 50 species by call. You'd think I'd asked them to memorize the Constitution of the United States word for word, the way they tell it.

For those of you hoping to learn bird calls and songs, be patient. It takes time, and it takes time in the field. No recording or other aid will substitute for the learning you achieve when busting through poison oak and barb wire in search of a singer. It makes an impression.

Just as my students have to learn bird song, so do the young of most birds. Their task is somewhat easier. They have to learn only one song, maybe two and rarely more to be conversant with others of their kind.

Most of the common birds in your backyard, excluding pigeons, doves and hummingbirds, belong to a huge group of birds known as perching birds ("passerines" if you really want to know). Within the perching birds there is a major division. One group is the songbirds, also known as "oscines." The other group is the "suboscines."

Songbirds include sparrows, warblers, wrens, grosbeaks, goldfinches and even the raven. It seems strange to call a raven a songbird, but it is to an ornithologist. These birds must go to school and listen carefully to others of their kind. Most get it right. Occurrences of an American goldfinch singing a house finch song or some other similar mistake are almost unheard of.

There are exceptions. Mockingbirds mimic other birds, but that's a topic for another time.

The suboscines are plentiful in the American tropics and include birds such as cotingas, manakins and tapaculos. Locally, only flycatchers belong to this group. The young of these birds don't have to pay attention in school. They are born with their song already in place. An olive-sided flycatcher reared from an egg in complete isolation will sing a perfect "Quick, three beers" song come spring. The phrase is the common rendering of their song into words and is often the first song a novice birder learns.

It's amazing enough that instructions for the pattern and color of a feather and the shape of a bird's bill are hidden away in DNA, but song? Just where do you tuck the sheet music for a song on a chromosome? I find it much easier to comprehend song learning. We do much the same when we learn our parent's language. It's a part of culture, defined as traits passed from generation to generation, but not through genes.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised at the vocal talents of flycatchers. There are other complex behaviors also regulated by genes. The instructions for the construction of the mud nest of a cliff swallow and the hanging nest of an oriole are also hidden somewhere in their respective DNA.

So while the pewees, phoebes, kingbirds — and hosts of little, green flycatchers — are still singing, listen carefully. You are experiencing one of life's pleasant mysteries.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at

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