Setting out to record birdsong for the first time can be a surprisingly risky endeavor. “There’s a danger whenever anybody picks up recorders and headphones,” warns Donald Kroodsma, who has written several books about birdsong and spent hundreds of hours in the field with a microphone. “You can get hooked for life.”
Kroodsma once committed himself to a three-day stakeout in California’s scorching sagebrush steppe to capture the calls of a particularly talkative Sage Thrasher. The furtive birds are known for mimicking other birds, and he wanted to find out just how many avian species this especially garrulous bird could ape. Based on nine hours of recordings, the bird had almost 700 different songs in his repertoire.
Don’t worry if stalking a single bird for days on end isn’t your style. Whether recording avian calls is something you want to dabble in or devote yourself to—and no matter your budget—this guide will help you get started.
Many recordists (yes, that’s their preferred term) start casually, as a way to improve their birding skills. When Jacob Cooper, now a Ph.D. student in ornithology at the University of Chicago, started doing avian research in Africa, where recordings are scarce, he began creating his own sound files to learn local birds’ songs. Cooper quickly discovered that the more he recorded, the more adept he became at identifying his quarry. Recording takes longer than simply working through a field ID, he says, and that means spending more time observing an individual bird’s behavior. That, plus the very effort of making the recording helps the bird stick in his head.
If you experiment with capturing vocalizations, consider sharing your recordings to aid scientists. “Anyone can do this,” says Greg Budney, an audio curator at the Macaulay Library, which has almost 10,000 avian recordings. And don’t worry if you’re a homebody. "You don't have to go far afield to record something new,” Budney says, pointing out that researchers have barely studied some common backyard phenomena, such as contact calls in cardinals.
Recordists can upload audio files to eBird, which automatically copies them to Macaulay Library. Some individual citizen science efforts also rely on recordings, like a project analyzing female birdsong. Whether you plan submit your recordings, it’s wise to end each one by saying the date, time, location, and species (if known).
Now, onto the equipment.
Gear Option 1: Get in the Game
If you’re just starting out, get a taste for recording with your smartphone. Avoid the default Voice Memo app, which records lower quality .mp3 files, and opt instead for an app that records higher quality .wav files, such as RØDE Rec on iOS ($5.99) or RecForge II on Android (free). Consider purchasing a miniature directional mic like the Røde VideoMic Me ($59). The Macaulay Library has helpful tips for making the most of smartphone recording.
Gear Option 2: Midrange Setup
Get better sound quality with less hassle by combining a recorder and microphone. The Zoom H4n ($200) is small enough to fit in your hand but mighty enough to produce high-quality recordings. (It’s also the audio recorder of choice for a couple of Audubon staff members). A shotgun mic, which looks like a baton, pulls sound from the direction you point it; aim it at your quarry and you’ll greatly reduce the amount of background noise you pick up. The most common model among bird recordists is the Sennheiser ME66/K6 ($460). You’ll also need an XLR cable to connect the mic to the recorder, and a windscreen or windshield will further reduce background noise.
Gear Option 3: Premium Package
The ultimate field recording kit includes a state-of-the-art recorder, like the Nagra Seven ($3,000). It’s a huge step up in price, and the device is large enough that you’ll want to carry it in a case slung over your shoulder. Lugging it along is worth the effort, as it provides much more control over recordings, which will be of the highest quality. And to make better recordings from longer distances, consider upgrading your mic to a parabolic setup like Telinga’s PRO-X ($840), which includes a foldable dish, microphone, and handle. The parabolic reflector, which looks like a satellite TV dish, funnels sound waves directly to the microphone. (Cup your hand to your ear to get a sense of the effect, says Kroodsma.) A parabolic setup excels at at reducing background noise, but it does have limitations. It won’t pick up lower-pitched noises as well as a shotgun mic, and for songs that tend to reverberate through the environment, like that of the Wood Thrush, it can produce oddly sterile recordings.
Gear Option 4: DIY
Laura Gooch, a former civil engineer based in Ohio, and her husband, an electrical engineer, made their own recording kit. “It takes a little bit of willingness to solder a few wires together and be a little innovative,” she says—but they ended up with a parabola setup for about $100. They’ve also rigged a recorder on their roof to capture the calls of songbirds migrating at night; find detailed instructions here.
Every recordist’s nightmare is stumbling across a target bird, fumbling with her equipment, and missing out. To avoid such mishaps, before you set out make sure your batteries are charged, you’ve got ample space on your gadget, and, if you’re using one, your windshield is in place. In the field, turn your device onto the pre-record setting, which essentially puts the device on standby. That means you can wait for a bird to vocalize, hit record, and be confident you’re capturing the sound from its start.
As with photography, audio recording can be a tricky game of pull and push—you want to get close for the best sound, but you don’t want to startle the bird. To help reduce that dilemma, Budney recommends that you start recording sooner rather than later—a conservative distance from the bird. Then try to close the gap by half, which will double the volume you hear. Before you hit the stop button, be sure to state where you are, what time it is, and what species you heard.
For new recordists, a disastrous file is practically a rite of passage. To ensure that the sound is good, plug headphones directly into the recorder (and keep an eye on the level setting—peaks should be between -6 dB and -12 dB). Also, and this is especially challenging, stand as silently as possible; shuffling feet, rustling clothing, and breathing can ruin a recording. Even once you’re quiet, there are a host of other sounds battling with birdsong: highways, jet planes, and distant dogs all carry. And then there are your companions. You may want to start dividing your birding trips into joint expeditions and solo ones focused on recording, since it can be difficult to convince others to wait silently.
Ultimately, for most birders it isn’t about making the perfect recording with primo equipment. “The best microphone, at the end of the day, is the one that you have,” says Ben Mirin, a sound artist who remixes nature recordings. “Every moment of birdsong is fleeting and contains information.”
Tips From the Experts
Six recordists share how they captured specific clips and their go-to gear.
Rainsong captured these Yellow Warblers migrating along the south shore of Lake Erie using a shotgun mic, which she prefers to a parabolic because it’s easier to carry. She uses recordings like this one for the nature classes she teaches across Ohio. “I’m teaching people how to listen, how to understand what they hear as part of an overall habitat and community,” she says. “Basically what I’m teaching them is how to protect the singers and the concert halls.” (Marantz PMD 620 recorder (no longer produced), Sennheiser ME-67 microphone ($380) with a K6 power module ($250), Sennheiser MZW60-1 blimp windscreen ($419), Sennheiser MZH60-1 long hair wind muff ($230), Sennheiser MZS20-1 shockmount pistol grip ($366).)
During his Big Year in 2015, Strycker came to appreciate the appeal of counting birds by song—not just sight—after he encountered bird recordist after bird recordist as he traveled around the globe. Back home, he bought a parabola mic; one of the first birds he pointed it at was this Stellar’s Jay in his backyard. When he saw it, he started recording, not realizing the bird was singing until he put on the headphones he’d plugged into his recorder. “It was sitting there with its beak closed,” he says. “It was practically inaudible, I could only hear it with the dish.” (Marantz PMD661 MKII recorder ($480), Sennheiser ME-62 microphone ($200), Telinga Pro Universal MK2 Parabola dish ($888), Rycote Medium Hole Softie Lyre Mount and Pistol Grip ($70).)
In 2013, a rare Nutting’s Flycatcher drew crowds to the Bill Williams River refuge in Arizona. Harter, a biologist at a nearby bird observatory, soon spotted a second bird. “I saw one of them flying with a bunch of white fluff in its beak,” she says, and sure enough, the birds produced two chicks. Harter and a colleague captured adult calls, but she was particularly excited to record the nestlings’ begging calls—which have only been recorded on one other occasion. Harter records with a shotgun microphone; her blog offers a breakdown of her equipment. (Sony PCM-M10 recorder (no longer produced), Sennheiser ME-66 microphone ($270), Rode PG2 pistol grip shockmount ($80).)
Gooch records on expeditions with biologists from Cleveland’s Natural History, like one in June 2014 when she heard a Pacific Wren calling in La Grande, Oregon. She directed her homemade parabolic reflector setup toward the bird and began recording. A few minutes in, a pair of screaming Red-tailed Hawks appeared, and the wrens switched to alarm calls. In this recording, she points the mic at the different birds in turn to highlight each species’ vocalizations.
A former musician and recording technician, Tom Stephenson's love of song extends to birds. He’s creating an app called BirdGenie, which will allow users to identify birds through field recordings. This recording from the Etosha Pans in Namibia includes more than birds—it starts with elephants (as they drink, their calls pick up the gurgling sound of water), and then picks up Double-banded Sandgrouse, a lion, and a jackal. (Zoom H5 recorder ($270), Sennheiser ME-66 microphone ($270) with a K6 power module ($250).)
As an audio curator with the Macaulay Library, Greg Budney has access to more sophisticated equipment than most hobbyists can afford, like high-quality stereo mics. To capture this capercaillie recording in Scotland, he set out at 3 a.m. with a park manager. The hike to the bird’s display ground and equipment setup had to be done without lights; he took the manager’s word for where to place the two microphones and covered them with camouflage cloth and vegetation. Trailing the long cables connecting the mics to his recorder behind him, they retreated and waited for the birds to arrive. About an hour later, a male capercaillie walked right up to the mics and started performing. The team celebrated its remarkable success with a 10 a.m. single-malt whiskey. (HHB Portadat PDR-1000 recorder (no longer produced), Sennheiser MKH 20 P48 omnidirectional microphone ($1,500), Sennheiser MKH 30 P48 figure-eight microphone ($1,570).)