Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

April 2014/ Quick: What is That Song?

April 2014 Quick What is That Song
They're baaakkk. The Eastern Phoebes. They've got a lot of personality. Or at least in my mind, I think they do. They're a brown bird who lives under the bridge above the river, in our back yard. They return every spring. A harbinger of spring really.

They have a raspy voice, that seems to get raspier. They sound to me to be proclaiming who they are, but at the same time not quite sure. They sound sort of like a confused grandmother. Phoebe? Phoebe. They question themselves. Phoebe? Then answer themselves with certainty. Phoebe. It's sort of like me when I feel old looking for my glasses. Glasses? Glasses.

The raspy voice, combined with the self-questioning tone, and the fact that they winter down south had me creating a character for her, kind of like a grandmother from Florida. You know the type? The polyester pantsuit, the blonde hair, the coral lipstick, smoking a Pall Mall cigarette, even though she knows better. When our Phoebe comes back I hear her saying, in that raspy voice, "Aw, it's great to be back. (puff)  I tell everyone in Florida about this place I got, (cough) under a bridge, not too far from the Berkshires, you know, but right in the middle of nowhere really. I come back here every year. It's so relaxing. (puff) My grandchildren come back too. We all love it here so much. Enjoying ourselves. Great tasting flies. Good to be with the whole family again, you know? Phoebe? Phoebe."

That's one way to remember a bird!

Birders have long used mnemonic devices, creating catchy phrases that mimic the song of the bird, making it easy to remember.

1) Try this:  So how about a mnemonic character? We find this very entertaining way to pass the time! (It's quiet up here…)This is completely silly, anthropocentric and hopefully doesn't ruffle any feathers (hahaha) about stereotyping, but who would your bird be if she were a person? Can you find a photo (or bring an image to mind) of what she might look like if she/he were human?

2) Try this:  Learn more about the bird you hear: You can find the pictures and call for any bird on this comprehensive site from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Learn about the real Phoebe here:

3) Try this:  Make up a saying for the birdsongs you hear: Even though I try to remember the calls I seem to forget most of them by the time spring rolls around again. (One of my favorites has always been the Barred Owl who says "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?") Here is an adorable resource to print that will get you started identifying some common calls!

updated: 1 year ago