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Credit: Bruce Whittington

It’s a sunny Sunday, and I am absently scuffling strawberries when a voice calls from behind the compost box, “Chi-ca-go! Chi-ca-go!” As I turn to look, he hops up onto the fence. His bobbing topknot quickly identifies him as a male California Quail. But even without my seeing him, he has given himself away with his calls.

Almost all birds vocalize, and many make non-vocal sounds. Birds use these sounds in a variety of ways. Males use songs and other sounds to demarcate their territories, and to attract mates. Birds use “contact calls” to keep in touch with other birds nearby. These are usually single notes, but they can be surprisingly distinctive, like the “ji-dit” of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Alarm calls are used to warn of predators in the vicinity. Juveniles make very insistent, demanding and often irritating noises to identify their location, and to demand food.

Call notes are generally innate, but bird songs are for the most part learned. Some species of birds sing only one song, while others develop an entire repertoire, but the songs always maintain certain identifiable characteristics. It has been said that the Bewick’s Wren has 10,000 songs, but I’m still learning the first dozen or two.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that birds have different dialects. When birds are returning to nest here, sometimes their familiar songs are countered by the dialect of migrant birds of the same species moving further north. It’s much like hearing the accent of a Maritimer, changing planes at a B.C. airport. Same language, but with a unique twist.

Experienced birders can separate most of the birds they encounter by sound alone, and in some species, sound is the only way to be certain of the identification. But even casual birders can learn some of the common bird songs quite easily. Would you recognize a Canada Goose call? If you can, you’re on your way.

Some birds say their own names, which is a great help. Everyone is familiar with the buzzy “chick-a-dee” sound made by its namesake. The Orange-crowned Warbler, however, is not in this category. Not only does it not say “orange-crowned warbler,” but neither does its thin trill even qualify as a warble.

Other birds sing songs that sound surprisingly close to spoken English. In the Peace River country, patriotic White-throated Sparrows sing “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” And at the end of the day, you may be pleased to hear the Olive-sided Flycatcher, usually in the top of a nearby conifer, exhorting you with his “Quick, three beers!

Woodpeckers make vocal noises, like the maniacal cackle of the Pileated Woodpecker. Most of their advertising, however, is done by drumming on a resonating surface, such as the dead branch of a tree. Even these non-vocal sounds are distinctive. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers give uniform, rapid drumrolls. Sapsuckers give a rapid drumroll, followed by a few uneven taps at the end.

The loud drumming of the crow-sized Pileated Woodpecker also trails off at the end. In their efforts to enhance their musical performances, new-age male woodpeckers have discovered the merits of drumming on eavestroughs, metal chimneys and even hubcaps. They also seem to be the most amorous in the earliest daylight hours.

Common Nighthawks (which are not hawks at all but members of the nightjar family, closely related to the swifts) create a “voom” sound as wind rushes through their feathers in spectacular aerial courtship dives. Hummingbirds, too, have distinctive diving displays. Usually, the display is accented by sharp “chip” notes.

There is a special category of birds that manage to do many of these things. The European Starling has a complex but rather unmusical song of its own. It is also, however, an excellent mimic.

For several years, a starling lived in our garden, and he came to be known as Rich Little. He imitated Greater Yellowlegs (a shorebird), Western Meadowlark (a grassland bird), Hutton’s Vireo (a forest species), plus Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and dozens more. There are other stories about starlings that have even learned the songs of such things as the door-ajar warning on your car.

The best way to learn bird sounds is simply through practice. Those long days you spend in the garden are an excellent opportunity to try to sort the birds out, even if you don’t know their names just yet. It is useful, too, if you are with someone else who knows the sounds. Natural history clubs, and many parks programs, offer field trips to learn bird sounds. There are also excellent recordings of bird sounds, with the best of them including local dialects. There are also computer programs that combine identification information, images and sounds all in one package.

If it seems a little daunting at first, remember how you learned the name of that first plant you slipped into the soil with eager fingers. One at a time, the names come to you, and once learned, they return each year, like old friends.

Past president of the Victoria Natural History Society, Bruce Whittington is a freelance writer and an avid birder with a special interest in gardening for wildlife.