Return of Spring Means the Return of “Birding by Ear”

A singing brown and white Song Sparrow perched on a branch. with thorns.

Spring weather marks the return of many songbirds to Wisconsin. It will also mark the return of a popular outdoor event organized by the Council in collaboration with Madison Audubon. Birding by Ear provides the tools and techniques to identify birds by listening closely to their sounds and songs. Participants discover what veteran birders have known all along: that identifying birds by sound is as accurate and fulfilling as noticing their coloration or shape. Birding by Ear is open to people with or without vision loss, and those who are brand new to birding are welcome to attend.

The program is split into two parts. The first session, which can be attended either virtually or in person, concentrates on techniques for listening and the instructor provides context for what is heard. This session also introduces students to some of the most common bird songs heard in early May in Wisconsin. The second section, a field trip to Warner Park in Madison, helps students strengthen listen-memory skills and how to pick a song out of a chorus of birds.

Council Access Technology Specialist Jim Denham has been involved with the program for five years. Among other things, he helps process the field recordings of bird sounds. For Jim, the class is a terrific way to get outdoors and break away from the technological world that is his career focus. He sees it as a way for others to do the same. “Many individuals don’t slow down and really listen to all the sounds of these beautiful creatures,” Jim says. “Birding by Ear is an opportunity to do just that.”

Birding by Ear starts in late April, but head instructor Kerry Wilcox will be in the field much earlier than that. “I always visit the field trip site ahead of time to get a sense of where the birds are and to plan the route,” Kerry says. “I’ll be out on my own as much as possible in April getting reacquainted with the birds.”

Kerry says the sounds of a bird are often more reliable for identifying the species than the look of the bird. One of the reasons is that certain varieties of birds look very similar. “I can’t think of too many examples of birds that are best identified by sight, especially during the spring and summer when they are singing.” He says calls—as opposed to songs, which are used to attract mates and defend territories—can be more challenging. “But with practice they can be used to positively identify many species as well.”

“I view the class as a way to connect more people to birding and the natural world who previously might not have thought it possible or interesting,” Kerry adds. “If you are a person who is visually impaired or blind, there are few birding classes that focus solely on sounds, and fewer still that are geared toward accessible field trips.” Birding by Ear is one of those rare classes.

There is, Kerry says, a downside to the experience. “Once you start to learn about the birds you hear and see, it can be hard to stop!” he warns.

For registration and other information on Birding by Ear, visit the Madison Audubon website.

Birding by Ear
First session: April 27, 6:00-8:00 p.m. or April 29, 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Second session (field trip): May 6, 8:00-10:00 a.m. or May 11, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
Cost: $20 per person

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