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Birding

Birding by Ear Can Be Challenging, But There’s Help at Hand

Looking to learn bird songs? Here are some courses and tools to guide you no matter your skill level.

Lindsay McNamara is an avid birder. Her weekends are typically packed with birding trips to state parks and recreational areas across New Jersey, where she identifies birds primarily based on their looks and habitat. But starting in March, as the pandemic advanced into the United States and shelter-in-place became the new normal, McNamara, who is the Great Egret Society Manager for Audubon, started birding from her apartment window. That meant increasingly relying on bird song to identify species.

“It’s really hard to bird by ear,” she says. “I don’t read music. I don’t play an instrument. And without having that kind of lexicon, it’s difficult.” But confined birding meant that she was seeing and hearing the same birds over and over again, helping her develop a vocabulary of local bird sounds. McNamara drew from tips and tricks she had learned from Cornell’s introductory “Be a Better Birder” online course (more on that below). But that isn't the only resource for birders hoping to refine their birding-by-ear skills. Here are our seven other programs to consider.   

Audubon Magazine’s Birding by Ear Series

We’d be remiss to not start with our very own eight-part Birding By Ear series. This set of web articles is a great introduction to identifying bird sounds. They explain the differences between bird songs and calls and encourage learning the language of your local birds, all while staying mindful of regional dialects and keeping your ears sharp for mimics. The series also provides tricks like using bird song mnemonics to serve as “memory hooks” to make birding by ear less overwhelming.

Be a Better Birder: How to Identify Bird Songs

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy, this three-hour course on How to Identify Bird Songs will transport you to seven soundscapes ranging from a remote volcanic island off the coast of Alaska to the woodlands of Central New York. While sitting in the comfort of your home, you will be exposed to the cacophony of dawn chorus as the course helps you distinguish between various bird songs. “It’s not meant to teach you a huge number of bird songs,” says Sarah Wagner, an ornithologist at Cornell University and one of the course developers. Instead, the videos and quizzes introduce bird enthusiasts to the lingo used in field guides for describing avian sounds and the tools needed to build a bird song vocabulary. This self-paced online course is available year-round for a $59 fee and is accessible to the visually impaired as well.

Marsh Wren. Photo: Craig Goettsch/Audubon Photography Awards

Bird Mentor

If you’re looking for a more structured guide into birding by ear, try Bird Mentor’s Bird Song course. Over six weeks, this course breaks down the basics of bird songs and helps tune your ears to the similarities and differences between a variety of bird vocalizations. Using weekly independent video lessons, daily quizzes, and three mentoring Zoom calls to ask questions and interact with other participants, the course aims to provide tricks and tools to bird by ear, especially for those who may not be musically inclined. Although it’s typically offered once annually in spring for a $147 fee, Bird Mentor’s Kristi Dranginis will run the course a second time in August 2020 to match the growing interest in learning about bird songs.

Learning Bird Language

Making the jump from learning bird song IDs to decoding bird communication—whether it's a mating song, alarm call, contact call, or other vocalization type—can be intimidating. But Jon Young and Josh Lane’s 30-day course on Learning Bird Language offers a peek into birds' secretive lives. Taking inspiration from the masters of deciphering bird language—the Kalahari Bushmen—this course aims at building your sensory awareness to spot the tension and calm in bird communications, Young says. Taught using independent video lessons and daily quizzes, the self-paced course is suitable for both new and advanced birders alike. It is offered year-round and costs $197.

Cooper's Hawk. Photo: Mike Dudash/Audubon Photography Awards

Larkwire

Focusing on the melodies of the breeding season, Larkwire, a game-based iOS or web application, helps you match nearly 500 North American bird species with their songs. The app offers quizzes at a variety of level and bird types to help you memorize sounds in a focused fashion. It can take you from being a totally unskilled ear birder to becoming a knowledgeable one, says app developer Phil Mitchell. With an upgrade on the way, users will be able to set their location and concentrate on birds and songs they’re likely to encounter in that region. Depending on which "songpacks" you purchase—ranging from backyard bird songs and essential calls to those featuring land or water birds—the purchase price can vary from $3.95 to $44.90.

BirdNET

If you’re looking for an easy way to narrow down bird song in the field, look no further than BirdNET. This free Android application—equivalent to Shazam, but for bird songs—allows you to record bird vocalizations and then upload the submissions for identification as long as you’re connected to the internet. Using artificial intelligence, the app matches the recording’s spectrogram with those of 984 common North American and European bird species in its database. Then, it provides a probable answer scored between 0 and 1: 0 indicates a wrong match, and anything above 0.5 often returns a correct answer, says Holger Klinck, director of the Center of Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University and one of the app developers. “I still consider it as a prototype,” he says, and by no means a final product.

If you don’t have an Android device or access to the internet, try Song Sleuth, another bird song-recognition app with a sound repository for 200 common species.

Field Guides and Bird Sound Libraries

More advanced learners will want access to large libraries of bird calls to browse and study. Described as the “birder’s bible” of bird songs, Roger Tory Peterson’s collection of bird-sound recordings are now available online through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy. The lab’s own Macaulay Library is an encyclopedia of bird sounds from across the world (and is the audio source for bird ID app Merlin). Audubon’s Bird ID app, too, has a browse and search functionality where once you look up a North American species you can hear its songs and calls.

Lastly, don’t forget to check in with your local Audubon centers and chapters to track down any online birding-by-ear events or webinars they might be hosting.

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