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Visual notation of bird songs

Bird watchers (a.k.a.-birders) make more identifications through bird songs than visual observations. Recognizing birds by song is a critical skill for any birder. There are more than a few sets of records and tapes of bird songs available that can be used to learn them.

There is a book, of interest to birders, and denizens of this site, that shows bird songs in notation. It is A Guide to Bird Songs, by Aretas A. Saunders, Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1951. The notation shows five qualities of a bird's song: time, pitch, volume, quality, and phonetics. At the top of the diagram is an indication of quality: clear, loud whistle, or harsh rattle, or the like. Below is the notation of the song in lines that are continuous or broken, of longer or shorter length, rising or falling, thicker or thinner, to indicate the line of the song and the duration of each note and the song as a whole. To the left is an indication of the musical pitch of the most prominent note or the mid point of the song. At the bottom is a phonetic transcription of the song, which, when combined with the information above, gives an indication of what the bird is saying in song.

Saunders gives us a visual representation of the songs of 201 eastern U.S. birds in this fashion. As an example of the visual representation of sound, it is quite a masterpiece. As with any notation of sound, it takes a bit of practice with known sounds to learn how to interpret the notation in this book. The book is out of print, but can be obtained through interlibrary loan.

-- Bob Jones (email)

The visual representation of sound is a rich and complex matter. Research on acoustics contains many superb high-resolution displays, often with beautiful patterns. Representations of music not only describe sound sequences but also enable its reconstruction.

The description of bird songs begins with the tweet-tweet method used in the book by Saunders:

The "aydle tee tee tee" etc. may not be all that communicative. Also some bird pictures would be helpful.

The classic field guide of Robbins, Bruun, Zim, and Singer A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America (1966) shows a tiny sonogram along with other bird information:

About 10 years ago a student in my analytical design seminar did a long paper on bird songs. I'll try to find that paper.

-- Edward Tufte

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Raven software displays a visual "sound spectrogram" of a recorded bird call, described in the Biologist's Introduction To Spectrum Analysis: Raven User Manual v1.2 Appendix B (PDF) .

A bird-song mnemonic web site encodes the American Robin's song as: "cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o." While this isn't visual, the mnemonic posted beneath spectral graph would enhance recall, even with a bouncing ball.

-- Paul (email)

Threads relevant to music:

Threads relevant to nature studies:
Theoretical speculations on leaving the flatland of paper and computer screens and working now in real-land and space-land.