When we lived in Pennsylvania, for a time we had a resident mockingbird. I don't know that I ever saw it (or would recognize it if I did), but one year it decided to serenade us regularly at midnight, just as we were trying to fall asleep. Like clockwork, it would start its repertory and run through a series of different calls, clearly and precisely, repeating each one twice—no more, no less. I think I actually counted them, and went though about eighteen before he started over.
I was reminded of this when earlier this week I was awakened before six a.m. by some other brave "early bird" (sorry, I couldn't resist). No, it wasn't a mockingbird. I have no idea what it was. I apologize for my great ignorance to all dedicated birders out there who are reading this. Anyway, as I listened to this morning mystery bird, I found myself thinking, how would I describe that on paper?
Which of course led me to think of David Allen Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. I have a copy that I keep on my kitchen table, next to the window from which I can see my two birdfeeders. I live close to the center of a small town, and my lot is small (and there are a number of neighborhood cats that roam freely), so the birds that appear are few in variety. There's an extended family of cardinals that live nearby and visit regularly for the sunflower seeds I put out. There are the ubiquitous sparrows. In the spring I see the occasional cedar waxwing. This week I waved to a passing goldfinch, but they're rare here. In short, nothing particularly extraordinary visits, but I do enjoy watching whatever appears.
But to get back to the point, I love reading Sibley's book because he makes a valiant attempt to transliterate (is that the word I want?) the calls of each and every bird. And the results crack me up.
Who knew that the golden eagle makes high yelping calls, while the bald eagle (we do have a nesting pair not far from here, the location of their nest carefully not made public) makes weak, flat chirping whistles? The Great Horned Owl (which I did hear occasionally back in Pennsylvania, although I never saw one) makes "a deep muffled hooting in rhythmic series ho hoo hoo hoododo hooooo hoo." The courting female is said to respond with a "nasal barking guwaay." (Did Sibley notice that looks a lot like "go away"?)
Open the book to any random page and you find all sorts of entertaining descriptions. Take, for example, the Dickcissel (I don't know that I've ever met one, although Sibley tells me they like to hang out with House Sparrows, and I have plenty of them). Here's how a Dickcissel sounds, per Sibley: "song a series of short notes skee-dlees chis chis chis with dry, insect-like quality. Call a dry husky chek. Flight call a distinctive, low, electric buzz fpppt."
You have to admire the man, who must have spent untold hours just listening, and then trying to capture the sounds in writing, making each one distinct. There's a lesson somewhere in here for writers. If you're describing your protagonist sitting outside on a nice summer morning with a cup of coffee, do you write "she could hear birds chirping," or do you say something like, "she could pick out the hard sharp tik tik of the cardinals gathered at her bird feeder"? It makes a difference.