whitney neufeld-kaiser on the sweet sounds of both birds and music

Many of us enjoy our morning commute (pre-COVID) in the company of a radio show or the latest pop song. Long-time Seattle Audubon member, Whitney Neufeld-Kaiser, enjoys her morning bike ride in the company of birds.

She commutes from her Ravenna home to her lab at the University of Washington on bicycle, and while she can’t take time to stop and see them, she knows they are there just from their morning songs. Whitney shared her passion for both bird song and music with Seattle Audubon, and how those two subjects have intersected in interesting ways.


Early affinity to music

Whitney’s musical interest began at an early age, first with the piano, and then expanded to the flute, thanks to a hand-me-down instrument from her cousin. She likes to say that music eventually “landed her a husband.” She and Jerry, a clarinet and tuba player and also active in the Seattle Audubon community, met while in the wind ensemble and marching band in college.

While in grad school at the University of Washington, she became interested in brass instruments including the French and baritone horn, paving the way for her (and Jerry’s) future spot in Seattle Balkan brass band, Orkestar Zirkonium. Playing with OZ was a highlight for Whitney. They performed at various local venues including Tractor Tavern, Town Hall, The Triple Door, and The Crocodile and opened for large international brass bands on tour in Seattle.

She fondly remembers interrupting herself mid-sentence to exclaim, “That’s a Caspian Tern!” as the bird called overhead during a summer evening OZ rehearsal outside at Jefferson Park. Her bandmates just laughed and shook their heads at her enthusiasm for birds.


 It started in the backyard

Like many bird advocates, Whitney and Jerry first became interested by observing what was visiting their backyard. They both have strong “classifier” streaks, so their interest quickly expanded to the species they could find in their neighborhood, and then to birds they could find in the broader Puget Sound region.

But it wasn’t until she enrolled in the Master Birder Program offered by Seattle Audubon that the sounds and songs of birds really came into focus for her. It was a new way to appreciate birds without actually needing to see them.

It is a natural leap to think that people who have an ear for music may also have an advantage at birding by ear, but Donald Kroodsma, a bird song researcher, disagrees. He says in his book, The Singing Life of Birds:

“You must have exceptional ears,” people often say to me as they lament how tone-deaf their ears must be in comparison. ‘No,’ I reply, ‘they’re actually pretty pathetic, and I have no musical ability whatsoever. But, like most of us, I have well-trained eyes, and it is with my eyes that I hear.”

While birding by ear did come naturally to Whitney, which is probably one of the reasons she enjoys being a class instructor for Seattle Audubon’s “Birding by Ear” now, she thinks her musical background mostly affects how she describes bird sounds. For example, she’s likely to refer to the “wichity, witchity, wichity” song of Common Yellowthroats as being triplets, or the opening of a Bullock’s Oriole song as being a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm.


Name that bird band

With an ear trained for music and birding, if Whitney were to put together an all-star band of song birds here are a few that she might consider:

Classical Music Group

Pacific Wren

for their incredibly complex songs, built from one of 6-10 “introductions” plus one of 8-10 different “conclusions,” drawing on an average repertoire of 158 “syllables.”

Garage Band

Bewick's Wren

for their commonality in the Pacific Northwest, their prolific singing, the great variation in their song repertoire, and how they cycle through their songs. Some are known to have over 20 distinct song types.

Cover Band

European Starling

for their ability to mimic. Recently one of the Starlings frequenting Whitney’s yard has been doing a very convincing mimic of a Red-winged Blackbird. She notes a book by local author Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Mozart's Starling, that explores the history of Mozart and his pet Starling, whose songs may have inspired some of his famous musical compositions.

Indie Rock Band

Montezuma Oropendola

found in Mexico and Central America, which Whitney describes as having a super unusual song like nothing she has heard before. A bird that marches to the beat of his own drum.

Guest Appearance

Fox Sparrow

for their song of rich, burbling, whistled notes. They don’t breed in Puget Sound, so we don’t hear them in this area very often, but they are known to be inspired to sing on sunny winter days.



A Harmonic Collaboration

Whitney currently keeps up with her passion for music in her vocal quartet, Emerald Harmony, alongside Seattle Audubon’s Executive Director, Claire Catania. Seattle Audubon was what first brought these two singers together, when they collaborated on an impromptu rendition of Phantom of the Opera’s “Music of the Night” at a focus group event in 2015.

Their friendship, and Emerald Harmony, were born out of their mutual love for birds. The quartet looks forward to a day soon when they can again sing along the pathway at Greenlake, bringing a smile to someone’s face as they pass by, much like our feathered friends do. 

 Learn More

Urban Noise: Birds and other wildlife are impacted by the noise that human environments create including car traffic, leaf blowers, and construction. Urban birds have to compete with a background noise level that is three times as loud as rural areas. To learn more about the impacts of noise on birds: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Birds Changing Their Tune

Birding by Ear: If you are interested in learning more about birding by ear, Whitney Neufeld-Kaiser is teaching her popular Seattle Audubon class: Who’s calling, please?  Introducing “birding by ear,” on Mondays, March 22 & 29 from 7:00 to 8:30pm. Learn more & register

Pacific Wren, Photo: Heather Roskelley | Audubon Photography Awards, Audio: Ron Overholtz | Xeno Canto

Bewick’s Wren, Photo: Leonard Hant | Audubon Photography Awards, Audio: M.D. Medler | The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds

European Starling, Photo: Gary Mueller | Great Backyard Bird Count, Audio: G.A. Keller | The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds

Montezuma Oropendola, Photo: Mick Thompson | Eastside Audubon, Audio: Sound Board | Sounds of Costa Rica

Fox Sparrow, Photo: David Boltz | Audubon Photography Awards, Audio: Peter Ward & Ken Hall | Songbirds of the Northwest

Other articles in this issue of Earthcare Northwest

The Nature Shop Windows Become Beautiful and Bird-friendly

An interview with muralist Angelina Villalobos

Enhancing Environmental Education with Art

by Hanae Bettencourt

Nesting in Trash

Spotlight on artist Laurel Mundy