I've never seen the elusive veery, but in late spring I sit in my garden at dusk and wait for this forest bird's amazingly complex song. After years of backyard birding, I've realized that only a fraction of the birds in my area are feeder birds, and that the majority are like the veery -- content to reveal themselves only with their songs and calls. If I want to get to know the tanagers, warblers, grouse, owls, and other bashful forest birds, I will have to learn to recognize them by ear. With the audio CD Birding by Ear: A Guide to Bird-Song Identification by Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Lawson (Houghton Mifflin Audio, 1999; $30) at least I ask myself the right questions. For example, was that an oven bird (teacher, teacher, teacher) or a Carolina wren (tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle)? And every time I hear the sound of a squeaky wheel, I look for the black and white warbler.
The CD package helps you learn how to listen for and recognize birds you may never see. The sounds are grouped by birds -- habitat and by the type of sound they make -- for example, whistlers, name-sayers, chippers. The instruction is clear, friendly, and effective. Similar-sounding birds are often contrasted, making it easy to identify the bird in the field. The convenient groupings correspond to tracks on the CD, making it easy to skip from one group of birds to another. You can master the woodpeckers, then move on to the owls. Birding by Ear also includes a few surprises. At one point, the editors slow down the veery so that you can hear it singing in perfect harmony with itself. This is one CD I may actually wear out.
Birding by Ear: A Guide to Bird-Song Identification is a Peterson Field Guide. It is available in Eastern-Central and Western versions.
Dan Hickey is a former managing editor at National Gardening.