The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye

Birdwatching and heard listing

I’m a birder, or should that be birdwatcher? Lots of people are interested in watching and listening to birds but quite where a casual interest turns into birding is hard to say. I’d define a birder as someone who regularly participates in activities that have a clear focus on encountering birds. Birders don’t just go out and notice the birds around them while they’re doing something else, they go out specifically to see and hear birds. I say ‘see and hear’ but I would say that for most birders the aim is to watch birds rather than to listen to them. This is not to say that birders aren’t interested in hearing birds. On the contrary, hearing birds is very significant but this is usually as a means to an end. Whilst people go birding for lots of reasons, I think most birders have two particular goals in mind in pursuing their pastime; they want to see birds and they want to know what kind of birds they are seeing. The sounds a bird makes are often extremely useful for revealing the location of birds, particularly when they’re in thick cover or flying overhead, and so attending to calls helps birders to see the bird. They can also assist in identifying a bird, most obviously in distinguishing similar looking species or recognising birds that have only been seen poorly. But although birders often enjoy hearing birds, I think listening for calls and songs is often seen by them as a means to those two ends of seeing and identifying.

Birders are, by reputation, rather keen on keeping lists of the birds they encounter and they often maintain a whole variety of these. There are life lists for all the birds they’ve ever recorded, national lists, year lists for species recorded in a calendar year, local patch lists, day lists etc. I’m not that much of a lister myself, although I do keep a few. But like a lot of birders I make an important distinction for the purposes of listing between birds that I hear and birds that I see. On some lists, particularly the very important life list and British list, I only count a bird if I’ve seen it. Although there are plenty of exceptions, I would say that this attitude is the norm amongst birders. This thread on Birdforum gives a good indication of how a lot of birders approach the question of whether to ‘tick’ birds (that is, include it on their lists) that they only hear.

For many, a bird clearly seems more real to them once they’ve seen it and hearing a bird without seeing it seems like a disappointment, particularly if it’s a species that isn’t on their list. I must confess that whilst I can’t readily explain why seeing a bird makes it seem more real, I still find it hard to get past the desire to see a bird. On hearing a bird, particularly one that I ‘need’ for a list, my first reaction is always to try and see it. Hearing it is a means to this end only, albeit a rather affecting means.

To redress this emphasis on seeing I’ve decided to take up ‘heard listing’ and I encourage other birders to do the same. Fairly obviously, I can only count species on my heard list if I’ve heard them utter a sound. So how am I doing? Well, my ‘British List’ of species that I’ve seen in Britain stands at a fairly lowly 311. I can only think of two species that I’ve heard in Britain but never seen, those elusive birds Quail and Corncrake. But how many have I seen but never heard? It turns out to be a great many more. Of course this raises the question of what counts as a sound. Do ducks splashing into the water count? Perhaps not, although again this is rather arbitrary, but vocalisations and mechanical sounds made by the bird certainly do. I’ve heard most of the passerine (songbird) species that I’ve seen, aside from a handful of rare vagrants that I’ve only rarely encountered. The gaps become much more apparent amongst the waterbirds, seabirds and birds of prey. A glance through the Collins Guide (the leading field identification guide to European birds) reveals that many diving duck are ‘rather silent’ and indeed there are a lot that I can’t recall ever hearing. I see red-breasted merganser on an almost daily basis but can’t say that I’ve ever heard the weak display call of the male or the “repeated hard, grating ‘prrak prrak prrak’” of the female. What’s most striking is that I’m often unsure as to whether I’ve heard a species or not, a situation unlikely to arise with seeing birds. Have I ever heard a glaucous gull? Possibly not. The one I regularly see from my bedroom in Aberdeen harbour seems to keep pretty quiet, but I’ll be casting my ear in its direction in an attempt to get it on my heard list.

Birding is an activity and like any activity it is a particularly way of encountering our world and the other lifeforms within it. Through birding I’ve learnt to perceive in a particular way and to attach significance to certain elements of what I encounter. Unlike the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, whom Steven Feld has written so eloquently about, I don’t apprehend birds initially as sounds or ‘voices in the forest’, as they put it. Instead I’ve learnt to understand birds as things that make sounds. I’m not sure that heard listing will change this understanding, particularly because unlike the Kaluli I’ll be trying to hear birds that are much more readily seen than heard, but it may help to make me listen a little more attentively.

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