Birdcall Mnemonics, Itchy Hand, Quiet-Quiet

Last Updated on 1 May 2024

We’ve come to realise detecting birds in the environment by their calls arguably gives one greater success than through sight. Birds sing, and when they sing nearby, it is a simple matter to hear and notice them. The challenge is distinguishing the songs, one has to eliminate possibilities in order to arrive at a high-probability identification. In just Singapore, the birdsong soundscape is fairly large, and language sometimes struggles to describe a fleeting auditory moment.

Mnemonics have helped in recalling particular songs, and a pattern seems to be that Chinese dialects make very effective birdsong mnemonics. Particular dialect phrases are evocative and tell a good enough story so as to stick in the mind (as mnemonics do). The rising and falling intonations and the rhythm of a well-chosen phrase will also match the birdsong well enough.

This week, father-in-law devised a clever mnemonic for the Pin-striped Tit-babbler’s call: “qiù jiór! diăm, diăm, diăm, diăm”. This snippet in Teochew translates into a very mundane grumble: “hand itchy! quiet quiet quiet quiet”. A grumble between two humans, in Singapore typically senior, who have probably spent many years in close proximity and are intimately aware of each other’s preferences and bugbears, and won’t hesitate in expressing their unfiltered discomfort as soon as it arises.