Bird song mnemonics with Monty Python and Ben Coffey.
I got the idea for this blog reading an on-going thread about mnemonics on Vermont Birds. When I came to the Peruvian Amazon for the first time in the early 90s I hardly knew any birdsongs. I soon realized however, if I were to be able to sort out all those Antbirds and Furnarids, I had to learn the songs. Luckily, already back then there were two excellent cassettes available. They were Ted Parker’s didactic Voices of the Peruvian Rainforest from 1985 with 39 species on it and of course the classic Birds of SE Peru by Ben Coffey Jr with 79 species. I must have played the last tape over and over hundreds of times until I learnt it by heart. In fact even the southern accent of late Ben Coffey was memorized. The introduction goes something like this.
First song on side two of the cassette was Bamboo Antshrike – a localized species that could readily be seen with playback at Amazonia Lodge in a small patch of bamboo within the forest on the main trail to the river. The same bird was exposed to Ben Coffey’s introduction and the following Crescentchest-like and quite high-pitched evenly spaced chup chup chup chup chup chup…….. (Recording Roger Ahlman-xeno-canto.org) by practically every birding group that came to Amazonia Lodge. In the end it seemed like the bird would come out without even playing its song. One had just to try to imitate Ben Coffey’s pronunciations of the introductory announcement of Bamboo Antshrike (again my impersonation).
I soon found that learning the calls of the rain-forest wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. The antbirds and furnarids had quite distinctive songs, many that were possible to imitate with a whistle. If you can learn to whistle the call of a bird it is much easier to remember.
But I also made up my own mnemonics. Here is Plain-winged Antshrike
It seems to query…
Another great mnemonic was that of Grayish Mourner.
If you seen the Holy grail by Monthy Python, you have no problem picturing that the Grayish Mourner is saying as fast as he can – and with a stressed last word:
We are the knights that say:….. Ni!
Finally, a bird that has become a nemesis bird for me. The Greater Scythebill. I shouldn’t feel too bad because it is a really rare bird. The song was only recorded for the first time less than 10 years ago. I have learnt the song by heart now and will easily pick it up if I ever hear it.
Listen to this:
Doesn’t it sound like a puppy complaining that it does not like to be beaten? Picture that and it will be hard to forget what it sounds like. Poor dog!
Today, there are apart from xeno-canto.org a number of relatively new CD:s published by Cornell and edited by Tom Schulenberg with birdsongs from Southern Peru. The 5 CD:s cover both the Andes and the lowlands and all in all close to 500 species. To learn all, you have to play them over and over, and if necessary turn to mnemonics and Monthy Python or other absurd situations to help you remember.
Brain photo by Gaeran Lee. Common creative license on Flickr and all recordings on xeno-canto.org
Update: I should perhaps, stress that Ben Coffey was a pioneer in putting together together recordings from the Neotropics. I did not have the pleasure of knowing him , but friends that did know him refer to him as a very generous man. I am surprised I could not find a wiki page dedicated to Ben Coffey Jr, but at least there is a In Memorian to download from The Auk.
Also, I must highlight what a fantastic resourse xeno-canto is. It deserves a special recognition. I recently published a list on my blog of my top10 birding web-sites. Unfortunately, xeno-canto slipped my mind….and did not even get a mention. But, to tell you the truth, the site should top the chart and is probably the most useful of all sites on the internet for the Neotropical birder. I have not contributed as much as I would like, but promise I shall try to be more active doing so in the future.