Keep an ear out for the male Song Sparrow's titular tune in spring. During other seasons, however, it uses a much simpler call to communicate. Photo: Putneypics /Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

In the Field

A Beginner’s Guide to Common Bird Sounds and What They Mean

Part two of our new series to help you build your birding skills—and love of birds—by learning how to bird by ear.

Editor’s Note: There's a lot to look forward to in spring, including the welcomed hullabaloo of birdsong. The sheer volume of songs and calls can often feel overwhelming for birders, but these sounds offer both an opportunity and a challenge. Follow along with our birding-by-ear series to learn how to better ID birds through their vocalizations.   

In part 2, Bird and Moon creator Rosemary Mosco takes you through the various sounds you hear and what they mean to birds (and to birders). And if you missed part 1 of this series, you can find it here.  

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Spring’s here, and there’s a birdy party raging outdoors. It's loud, it's raucous, and for the untrained ear, it's often incoherent. But don't fret. With a little practice, you can begin decoding all those songs and calls, which will in turn give you remarkable insights into the species around you. Honing your birding ear can also reveal hidden details in the field. For instance, you’ll know to look for raptors when you hear songbirds whistle in alarm. Or you’ll learn to give a Killdeer some space because it’s “trilling” to protect its nest.

Here’s a quick rundown of the kinds of sounds you might hear, and how they're often described by field guides and birders.

Songs Versus Calls

Most birds have a wide repertoire of songs and call, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the two. Among the songbirds and various other groups of birds (such as cuckoos, owls, and nightjars), songs are used to defend territory and attract mates. Therefore, it’s the males that sing the most—usually during breeding season.

So how can you tell a song from a call? The difference isn’t always obvious, but songs are usually more complex and carry a clear pattern. One classic example is the the melody of a Song Sparrow.

Calls, on the other hand, tend to be shorter and simpler—often just one syllable long. Here’s the Song Sparrow’s chimp call for comparison. Both sexes vocalize with calls, and they can be heard in all seasons.

But be aware that not all songs are so showy. The Henslow’s Sparrow, for instance, barely sings more than a syllable.

Studies have shown that in most songbirds, the basic call notes are instinctive. But in many species, the young male must hear its species’ song at a certain age to learn it. This is important because it leads to more individual variability in songs than in calls. Listen to the standard chip note of the Yellow Warbler: It always sounds pretty much the same, but the songs of the males are endlessly unique.

Types of Calls

Songs may be easier on the ears, but tuning in on calls will reveal a staggering amount of variety and complexity among birds. Common Ravens, for example, generate up to 33 different categories of sounds. Some calls can even have multiple meanings.

Alarm calls

The length of a Black-capped Chickadee's warning call conveys different kinds of threats. Photo: Tim Lenz /Flickr CC (BY 2.0)

Amazingly, birds can tailor their calls to respond to a wide range of threats. If a raptor’s flying overhead, a songbird may make a short, quiet, high-pitched sound that won’t carry far. This alerts nearby birds without revealing the caller’s location. But if a raptor is perched, smaller species might try to project deeply and loudly to rally the troops and mob the intruder. Chickadees, for instance, utter a high seet when they see an aerial predator. If they encounter a perched owl, though, they’ll holler chick-a-dee! with an increasing number of dees depending on the severity of the threat.

Contact calls

Birds make contact calls to keep in touch with each other, often while they’re foraging for food. These sounds are usually short, quick, and quiet, though if birds get separated, they may make louder, more urgent “separation calls.”

Flight calls

Species that flock often call back and forth while in flight; this is a good way to detect clouds of blackbirds, waxwings, siskins, or bluebirds passing overhead. Flocks of shorebirds also may be vocal in the air. But many less-social species also have distinctive flight calls that are quite different from their usual calls. During spring and fall, most songbirds migrate at night; if you listen closely, you can hear their various chirps drifting down from the dark sky.

Begging calls

Pileated Woodpecker chicks make buzzy calls while waiting for their food to be delivered. Photo: Sylvia Hunt/Audubon Photography Awards

Youngsters make “feed me” noises, often while silmultaneously fluttering their wings to get their parents’ attention. These calls may be regularly repeated and sound pretty darn pathetic. They're also not the best for getting down to species IDs, but they'll tip you off to any parent-chick viewing opportunities (always from a safe distance, of course).

Describing Sounds

When you first start listening to bird sounds, you might have trouble describing what you’re hearing without trying to whistle or squawk. And that can be a challenge, given that some songbirds can sing two notes at once. Try to pay attention to the pitch (whether the notes are high or low), the tempo (or speed), and how the tone sounds. Once you have a rough description, you can see if they fit the characterizations that most birders and field guides use.

Trill

This is a quick run of similar phrases that seem to blur together, almost like an old-school alarm clock or Nokia ringtone. The Pine Warbler’s song is an example.

Buzz

A buzz is like a trill but has a faster tempo, so it’s even harder to hear individual phrases. The Golden-winged Warbler’s song is buzzy.

Rich or thin

Generally, rich sounds are low and full, and thin songs are high and faint. You can see this contrast in Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting songs; the grosbeak’s is much richer.

Harsh

This word describes any rough-sounding call that may be grating on the ear. The caw of an American or Fish Crow is a familiar example, though the latter is much more nasally.

Bell-like, flute-like, whistling, or metallic

This is where all that marching-band practice comes in handy. You can compare bird sounds with instruments or other common objects—the melodic notes of a Hermit Thrush with a flute, or the rusty screech of a Common Grackle with a swinging gate. 

Other Noises

There’s more to bird sounds than just vocals. Downy Woodpeckers advertise their presence by drumming rapidly on a tree—and sometimes on the side of your house. (In fact, you can ID certain woodpecker species by measuring the pace of their knocks.) Mating season is often full of unexpected noises like the soft thwacks of a Ruffed Grouse’s wings or the squeaky vibrato of an American Woodcock’s flight feathers. Listen for subtler sounds, too, such as shuffling leaves, flapping feathers, and clumsy, crashing fowl in water. They can point to behavioral clues and help you solve an ID. 

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