A biology professor introduced me to birding by ear when I was in college. I think neither he nor I realized what a wonderful gift he had given me. Below are suggestions for how you can acquaint your students with what has long been one of my greatest passions. Birding by ear can be enjoyed by students of any age.
Begin by spending time in the classroom talking about birds and teaching a few easily recognizable local bird sounds. There are many resources within easy reach if you have access to the internet and a smartphone. One of my favorites is BirdTunes, available from iTunes. It provides bird enthusiasts with uncluttered access to a comprehensive collection of North American bird songs and calls, and it works great with Voiceover. You may want to ask students to name a bird they have heard of, and then use BirdTunes to play its sounds.
Note that there are three different versions of BirdTunes available:
What do Birds Look Like?
If possible, bring in some taxidermied birds for students to touch. Talk about size and weight. E.g. the Black-capped Chickadee is much smaller than a robin and weighs about as much as a sheet of paper.
Why do Birds Sing?
Talk to students about why birds sing. They may sing to attract a mate. They give danger calls when they see a hawk or other predatory bird in the area, and they sometimes make sounds to stay in contact with others of their species. Actually there is a lot we do not know about why birds sing.
What’s that Bird Saying?
Use of some clever mnemonics can help students remember bird sounds. The American robin seems to say “Cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” Play a bird sound and then ask your students to try and put their own words to it. “What does that bird seem to be saying?”
You can find an exhaustive list of bird mnemonics from South Bay Birders Unlimited at http://web.stanford.edu/~kendric/birds/birdsong.html
Blindfold Bird Songs is a recently developed fully accessible iOS app that contains games for learning bird sounds. One game asks the user to match a bird name with the correct song from a short list. While some of the bird sounds are a bit muffled, it’s a fun app to play with.
If one of your students is fortunate enough to have “absolute pitch”, he or she may find it easy to learn a variety of bird sounds very quickly. There is a professional nature recordist from Brazil who is blind who has learned to identify over 700 species of birds and more than 3,000 bird sounds. You can visit the English version of Juan Pablo Culasso’s website at http://birdsounds.ronjaleader.net/indexus.php
There are many topics you may wish to connect to your discussion of birds. Why do birds migrate and how far do they go? How does our treatment of the environment affect bird populations? What can we do to protect birds? How do current methods of coffee production affect the rain forests, and how does destruction of rain forests affect bird populations and migration?
After introducing some bird sounds, ask students to note what birds they hear on campus or at home. Ask what other animal sounds they can recognize.
Let’s Go Birding
Plan a short walk outdoors. Early in the day and early in spring are ideal times for a bird walk, but if you cannot wait for spring, schedule a walk any time you can. Have a brief discussion prior to heading outside. Suggest some birds to listen for, and ask students to pay attention to other sounds also. Through your own enthusiasm, you can instill a desire in your students to experience the beauty and mystery of birding by ear.