Increasing Cognitive Stimulation During Workouts with Environmental Puzzles

Every season has its notable bird species. In southeast Texas, the blue-headed vireos, bald eagles, pine warblers, hermit thrushes, and ruby-crowned kinglets of winter are diminishing in number as individuals migrate north, while the spring migration of neotropical songbirds has already begun. I’m seeing black-and-white warblers regularly, hearing northern parulas and white-eyed vireos singing in the woods, and have heard yellow-throated, hooded, and possibly worm-eating warblers.  (Worm-eating warblers sing like chipping sparrows but sound less “musical.” One must be careful, though, for rogue Carolina wrens mimicking these species, as I discovered during a hike.)

Visual birding is a cognitively difficult activity that’s well-suited to outdoor physical workouts (running, cycling, hiking).  Throw in the aural aspect of birding, which few experienced birders attempt to master, and the cognitive challenge (and interest) goes up significantly.  That said, birding by ear is critical to identifying species, especially in challenging habitats like leafed-out spring- and summertime forests.

Since so many neotropical migrants pass through southeast Texas, I decided to learn their songs.  My daily drive to work and back was largely empty time (except for seeing interesting birds, like crested caracaras or bald eagles, on occasion), so I filled it with the songs of warblers, vireos, buntings, grosbeaks, sparrows, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, tanagers, and other birds.  I didn’t use any special techniques–no spaced repetition algorithms or anything like that–but I still managed to learn their main songs and calls over a few weeks of spending about thirty minutes in the car each day.*

It’s really paid off.  Since learning these songs, I’ve been able to identify hidden birds that would have puzzled me in the past.  Unexpectedly, for harder identifications, I’ve been able to narrow down the species that could have produced the songs in the field, later figuring them out easily at home upon comparing the few candidates’ songs.  This is not only because different families of birds generally produce different types of songs (e.g., orioles don’t sound like warblers, which don’t sound like grosbeaks or finches, which don’t really sound like sparrows), but also because one can mentally group similar-sounding species together, regardless of which family they’re in.

For example, during my run this morning, amongst a cacophony of Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, blue jays, and northern cardinals singing, I also heard a short, clear, rising melody emanating from a particular patch of woods.  The song was repeated at regular intervals and didn’t include a trill, so I narrowed the possibilities down to hooded warbler, magnolia warbler, and warbling vireo (all sing rising melodies). At home, I looked up the candidates’ songs and immediately recognized the mystery bird as a hooded warbler.

I often carry a small binocular around my waist while running, which helps me solve visual puzzles as birds fly past.  Now that I’m more comfortable with aural birding, a new dimension to outdoor activities has opened up.  Every time I hear an unfamiliar birdcall or song, I’m presented with an aural puzzle that I may be able to solve.  Since so many birds migrate at night and are quite vocal in flight, aural birding also works during nighttime runs in the spring or fall.

A final, unexpected benefit to familiarizing myself with some of the topography of bird sounds: a new appreciation for particularly lovely songs, such as those of the house and purple finches, the eastern and western meadowlarks, the wood and hermit thrushes, the winter wren, and the painted and indigo buntings.

*I used the Peterson Field Guides’ CDs.

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