on not being sure

For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking part in some training with my local BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) team on bird identification, focusing on songs and calls. This has involved spending a few mornings in lively online meetings, learning about sonograms and silhouettes, doing a bit of homework, and most of all, getting outside and listening.

curious corvid

For someone with an unbalanced body who has to continually look where I am going (looking at or for a bird is probably the principal reason for my many outdoor falls) my ears rather than my eyes have become the best way of alerting me to an avian presence, and I’ve found over the past couple of years that I really love listening to birdsong, though I often find it difficult to identify or understand exactly what I’m hearing. Bird songs and calls are so fleeting, so ephemeral. The phrases are too fast to sing back to oneself, the tonal qualities are so very different to those of a human voice. While I’m out walking, I try to fix a sound, a sound-structure, in my memory, then, back at the house, struggle to match that sonic memory to the noises emerging from a phone app or the description of a particular bird’s song in the Collins Guide. Did that bird really sound like a squeaky toy or a rusty gate? Would I describe it differently? I was keen to learn more, and feel very grateful for the opportunity to do so from Ben and Steve at the BTO.

low flying buzzard

I really enjoyed the training, and one of the best things about it was its sense of complete inclusion: that everyone learns differently, and that everyone present, to a greater or lesser extent, had something to learn. I found the focus on memory aids really interesting, since like many people, I have a wide range of cues and associations upon which I draw to help me identify, and distinguish between, the sounds made by different birds. For example, to me, the final, declarative flourish of a chaffinch song sounds like a sneeze, while a series of high tee tee tee tee notes heard in the middle of a phrase between two faster trills immediately reminds me of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, and tells me that bird’s a wren.

a stonechat – whose chinking call from fence posts is one of my favourite local sounds

While participating in the training sessions, I found it very interesting that the emotive qualities of birdsong resonated completely differently for different people. For example, the song of the robin was described by some as being as bright or cheerful as the appearance of the bird, but I find it impossible to interpret the sweet, fruity notes rising from a bare branch on a cold winter’s day as anything other than wistful or plaintive. And while I find the rich doo-doo of a wood pigeon an invariably calm and comforting sonic accompaniment to the woodland environments in which it is heard, I was amused to to find others describing this sound as furtive, or creepy. To even begin to understand the sounds of birds, we all heavily rely on language and figurative association, on human similes and metaphors. Such metaphors are necessarily personal and partial—they may make sense only to ourselves, while being completely incomprehensible to others. Reflecting on the wide range of metaphors we participants used as memory cues in the days after my training, I have found myself wondering whether it could ever be even possible for a human to have an unmediated experience of birdsong, by which I mean one completely unburdened by figurative association? Perhaps if one were at the stage of being able to recognise birds as individuals, rather than as types, and their voices became as immediately recognisable to us as those of our human acquaintances? Imagine that!

it is one of the great pleasures of living here to know these two as ‘individuals’ not just as ‘swans’

The diverse memory aids, the curious human metaphors we all use to extend our knowledge of birds may be the antithesis of avian but in the end they do help us to learn much more, which can only be a good thing. And understanding my own faltering learning processes, my own forms of knowledge, as necessarily personal, incomplete and partial is certainly one of the ways in which I hope to become a better birder, and perhaps a better listener all round.

coal tit

The BTO training taught me a lot about some of the birds I love to encounter every day, and has already enriched my knowledge enormously. I feel I’ve been equipped with a range of tools through which to approach the experience of listening to fleeting noises in a landscape, and to better understand and identify the structures and sounds of song. But though I now certainly feel much more confident about distinguishing between the songs of a great tit or a coal tit, I think the key thing I’ve taken away from my training is that not being sure about a bird is always the first step towards knowing more about it. In relation to birds, as to many other things, I suppose I’m very happy to be a novice, a beginner, someone who knows there’s always much more for me to discover. I’m certainly finding that learning about birds, as learning about anything, will always involve embracing the joy of not being sure.

Thanks to Ben and Steve at the BTO for some fantastic training – I’ll certainly be back for more! And thanks to Tom, as always, for photography.