Breaking the bonds of the familiar: a listening exercise

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day, so I walked my Introductory Fieldcraft class off campus to residential neighborhood and set about teaching them to identify birds. We spent the first hour and a half of class going through the usual modes of identification–field marks, behavior, association with habitat, and sound–but, as you might expect, it was mostly me doing the pointing out of these things. Still, by the end of that period, we’d seen and identified a number of birds.

Students learning to identify birds

It was a beautiful day–warm and sunny, with very light winds, and much more like a late spring day than the tail end of winter. We are on the cusp of spring here, and with it, the transition time between the lingering winter visitors and early spring travelers. We were lucky to have such a marvelous day to be looking for both.

After the initial, introductory period of learning to identify birds in the field, we went and sat in a park to make notes in our journals.

And then, like all teachers do, I sprang a pop quiz on them. As we walked back to campus, they had to identify as many birds as possible, by ear, without my help. For I’d noticed something, you see. They’d fallen into a rhythm of chatting and walking, and waiting for me to point the birds out to them. Then they’d all dutifully lift their binoculars and look. They’d grown complacent and comfortable. And thus the pop quiz, to make them uncomfortable–to make them stop talking and really listen and, as a result, see. To make it even more interesting, I was going to be doing the same, and at the end of the journey, we would compare notes to see if we had the same number of species.

It wasn’t quite birding by ear, since if they heard a bird they didn’t know, they were allowed to hunt it down and identify it by sight, but the point of the exercise was to get them to listen to sounds, and not simply rely on sight. That is, only after they’d located the bird by ear and tried to identify it that way could they look at it.

Students writing in their field notebooks

Asking brand-new birders to identify by ear all the birds they encounter on a walk might seem an impossible task, but to my delight, the class identified a total of eleven species, including Yellow-rumped warbler, pine siskin, white-winged dove, and red-breasted nuthatch. In the end, I had one more than they did–a junco–but it was on a busy street, under challenging noise conditions, so I didn’t hold it against them. (And actually, one student did ask me after class if it was possible he’d heard a junco, so I’m willing to grant that we ended up tied in our friendly competition).

This morning the dogs woke me earlier than usual, insisting on barking at a possum that has taken to visiting our backyard. But even after the visitor had left the premises and I had breakfasted and started working, they continued their racket. I suppose they have spring fever like the rest of us, but eventually I grew weary of getting up from my work and going out to the backyard to quiet them down. Finally, I grabbed my fluffy robe and a lap quilt, a mug of tea, and the book I was reading to prepare for class. I took it all to a spot in my garden that I call my “writing room” and settled in. The dogs were calmed almost instantly, and after a few moments of sitting quietly, the birds began their chorus.

Yesterday in class, I was focused on teaching, which takes enormous concentration and energy. I am constantly evaluating the progress of learning as we work together: Is the collective attention of the group wandering? Should I give them more hints, or fewer? Am I challenging them enough by withholding some information and asking them to puzzle it out, or am I risking having them become so frustrated that they will give up? And most of all, are they having enough fun to be learning things they will carry with them the rest of their lives?

A lot of people see me doing my job and think, “What great fun!” And it is. But it is also work and responsibility, and it can be exhausting. So when I am out there with a class, I am experiencing things in a way that is not very relaxing. I am not actually birding (or journaling, or writing, or hiking, or identifying wildflowers) along with my students. I am teaching.

This morning, however, I was by myself. And though I was working in one sense–doing some background reading–I was still, in another sense, on my own time. So I listened to the early morning chorus with a different ear, and I heard each of the birds we’d listened to as a class yesterday, all old friends as familiar to me as my dogs–plus…one I didn’t know. I put down my book and grabbed my binoculars and went looking.

It was a brown creeper, my totem bird and the the first I’d ever seen in my yard.

If you know brown creepers, you know that they are not the easiest birds to spot. I have spent much of my birding life, in fact, feeling frustrated by my efforts to find this bird. Though I’ve seen them occasionally, it has always been a result more of serendipity than from any skills on my part. But here was one on my own backyard! And from what I know about the birds that frequent my backyard, if I see one once, the chances are very good that it is not an individual merely passing through, but one who will stay or has been around for at least a few days, if not weeks. So I wondered, on the basis of this exercise, how many times had a brown creeper visited my garden, never to be seen? Had this one perhaps been there all winter? Would I have found it sooner if I’d only done what I asked my students to do, which was to stop looking and simply listen? Have I been so focused all these years on what I could see with my eyes, that I’ve failed to discover something there? Have I been too complacent and comfortable?

The teacher has learned something this morning.

It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the familiar, to forget to look or listen because we think what is there is the same each and every day. Or perhaps, as in the case of my brown creeper, we’ve missed something because it is a bird that is cleverly camouflaged, and difficult to locate by sight. In either case, it is good sometimes to step out of our routine and take a different approach. What would happen, for example, if we decided to try an exercise in being less dependent on the eyes, to leave them at home, so to speak, and to take out our other senses and dust them off. What could we identify by smell, or sound, or touch, or taste? Try it sometime and “see” what transpires.

  1. says

    Susan, what a great story this is, and what a wonderful gift you’ve given your students. There’s so much to be learned by simply listening! I have an “office” on my back deck, too. I sit outside with my dogs at my feet and we all listen intently. many times I’ve spotted birds by watching the dogs. They don’t miss a thing. Other times I’ve found new birds because an unusual song has joined the chorus.

  2. Susan says

    Your dogs are more tuned into birds than mine, Carole. Now squirrels, on the other hand, are objects of intense scrutiny for them…

  3. Velma LaMonte says

    Susan, I just discovered you through my last Birds & Blooms newsletter email. Enjoyed so much your writing. I am not a “birdwatcher” in the sense of knowing very much about them, but have always enjoyed seeing and listening to them.
    I hope you will continue to write and educate us on one of God’s beautiful gifts of nature.
    Velma LaMonte

  4. Noelle says

    Hi Susan,
    Well, I wish that I had been able to join your class. To be honest, I would like to be better at identifying birds just by listening.

    I am hoping to see a White Winged Dove soon by my feeder, joining my Mourning and Inca Doves :-)

    • Susan says

      Noelle–I’m not an expert at identifying birds by call or song, either. It has taken me years to commit my local and common birds to memory, but even this is useful, since it enables me to pick out the uncommon song among the familiar chatter.

  5. Melody Leavitt says

    I am voluntarily (?) housebound… in lots of pain from fibromyalgia and degenerated discs…and other things too numerous to mention….but i need physical activity is needed to feel better, let alone lose weight, get my Vit. D naturally, etc. So every day is a battle between my body, which begs to just sleep to avoid feeling my pain (or at least give it a good try), and my mind which says “you know you gotta get out of bed and get outdoors for awhile.” Thank goodness for the birds and perennials sprouting! As in the previous comment, I hear a new sound and I just have to get out to see if I can figure out which bird it is… Oh, and there’s a few seedlings that need to be set out, too – so get up and get going, self!

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