How to Memorize Bird Songs by Using Mental Images

Part three 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 to learn 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 use vocalizations to better ID birds. To catch up, check out part 1part 2part 4part 5part 6part 7, and part 8

In part 3, former musician and The Warbler Guide author Tom Stephenson teaches how to tap our imaginations to connect the dots between birdsong, mental images, and species IDs. 

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Have you ever been greeted on the street by someone you vaguely recognize? Their name is on the tip of your tongue, but after a few desperate seconds, you awkwardly nod and slink away. It happens to the best of us—and it happens even more with birdsong. You hear a familiar tune while you’re out in the field or at your window, and you know you should have the ID down pat. But you can’t remember what species is behind it. Of course, unlike humans, birds don’t take offense. But that momentary lapse can be frustrating, especially if the bird never reveals itself.

So what’s a birder with a shoddy memory to do? Well, you could drive around in a car listening to a birdsong CD, with a polite voice announcing the species in each recording. But this method is tedious and ultimately ineffective. Once you get out in the world, the training will be for naught because you won’t be able to connect the song with the name of the species. It will all just be a jumble of words in your brain.

Fortunately, there’s a fix: a well-studied, image-based technique that makes IDing birds by their songs a breeze. It's a system that can be used to memorize almost anything, but it’s especially efficient for linking abstract perceptions like paintings or music to a name or category. For birding purposes, start by immersing yourself in a bird sound that you’ve already identified. Close your eyes, clear your mind, and don’t worry about remembering what kind of bird it is. Slowly, your brain will conjur up a series of pictures or words solely based on what you’re hearing. You then need to find a way of connecting that first impression to the name of the species.

It’s a hard process to describe, mainly because everyone has their own convoluted ways of referring back to the bird. Regardless, here are a few examples. Let’s say you want to learn the song of a Black-and-white Warbler. It has a simple, high-pitched tune with repeated two-part phrases. What do you picture when you hear the sound? A common image that many people immediately think of is a squeaky wheel. That raw impression— the first and only information you get when you catch an unknown song in the field—is the key reference point.

Next, you have to expand upon that image by bringing in more context. For instance, with the Black-and-white Warbler, a squeaky wheel could mean a broken wheel on your bicycle. That bicycle is being stolen by a criminal in a black-and-white, striped prison suit. He’s speeding away too fast for you to catch him. But you aren’t that sad that he’s stealing it; you have insurance. And there you have it. You’ve connected the visual triggered by the vocalization back to the warbler’s name and ID.

The process may sound wild and far-fetched, but there are volumes of research demonstrating that images are the easiest things for our minds to remember. In fact, the crazier the better!

Here’s another scenario. When a Yellow Warbler sings, many birders hear Sweet Sweet Sweet, I’m so so so Sweet. That mnemonic can qualify as an image as well. What makes something sweet? Honey. And if you imagine a bird dripping in honey it would most certainly be yellow. Boom.

How about the song of the Northern Cardinal? It has long, sweeping, echoing upslurs that might sound like a light-saber battle to anyone familiar with Star Wars. The characters that wield light sabers are usually wearing long robes, similar to those of Catholic cardinals. And to keep the Star Wars theme going, Darth Maul has a red-and-black face, just like the male bird. (Warning: You might have to send a royalty check to George Lucas every time you use this image.)

There is one more crucial step to perfecting this technique, however. After creating a reference, you need to test it out without knowing the species behind the song. If your brain hears the bird’s name first, it will shut down the visual-memorization process.

To do this, put together a short iTunes playlist with four or five songs you want to learn. No more than that, though: Our brain can only handle a few things at a time. Repeat the image-making process for each of the clips. Go get a drink or a sandwich, then come back and listen to the songs in random order. Recall the visual, make the name connection, and check to see if you’re correct. You might be amazed at how accurate you are.

Review this playlist a couple of times before starting on another small set. Once you get the knack of creating the images and trying them out, you can learn a large number of songs relatively quickly. I’ve used this technique to prepare for international trips and have learned 300 or more songs in five to six weeks. You could also use this system to master the songs of 30 species of warblers over the course of spring migration. Keep testing yourself with playlists and drawing connections while you’re out birding. You will hear and see more as you improve.