How to Start Identifying Birds by Their Songs and Calls

Part one in 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 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7, and part 8.  

First up, master birder and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman on why you should give birding by ear a chance, and what you need to get started. (Bonus: You're probably already doing it!)

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Shakespeare was a Bard and a birder. Don’t believe me? Check out Romeo and Juliet. During a secret nighttime tryst, the star-crossed couple argues about a bird they’re hearing outside the window. Is it a nightingale or a skylark? The question is a matter of life or death: If it’s the lark singing, that means daybreak is coming, and Romeo must flee for his own safety.

Fortunately, nailing bird IDs doesn’t usually have such heavy consequences. But for birders, learning to recognize birds by their voices is tremendously valuable. People may speak of “birding by ear” as if it were different from normal birding, but it’s not; it’s something you’re already and always doing. In my case, whenever I’m outdoors or even close to a window, I never stop listening for birds. When my wife, Kimberly, and I got married, for example, I identified eight species by voice during the ceremony. She wasn’t mad—she heard and IDed the same birds.

Experts never stop birding by ear, and for good reason: Sound is very often the best way to detect a bird’s presence. Rails rattling in a marsh, a tanager whistling from the treetops, pipits calling in flight overhead, a Canyon Wren singing from a ravine wall—these species can easily go unnoticed if you’re not listening. In dense surroundings like rainforests, sound becomes even more essential. “Birding in tropical forests by sight alone is like watching the news on television with the sound turned off—you’ll miss most of what’s going on,” the late Ted Parker once said. (Parker was legendary for his ability to identify thousands of birds by voice.) The same can be said about dense, species-rich habitats here in the states, from wooded swamps to the sagebrush sea.

Plus, for species that are easy to spot but hard to tell apart, voice can be the best clue. Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, dowitchers in winter plumage, and several kinds of flycatchers all fall into this category. To work through these sticky IDs, birdwatchers need to double as bird listeners, too.

Birding by ear can seem daunting when you’re just getting started, though. A spring sunrise could serve up dozens of different species calling at once. Picking out a single voice from the chorus feels hard enough, but trying to name each singer is downright overwhelming. How will you ever learn them all?

The good news is that you don’t have to learn them all, especially not right at first. The benefits of birding by ear start to kick in as soon as you learn a handful of voices. Mastering the sounds of one or two species is the key to learning more; as you build up your mental library, you’ll have more practice and more basis for comparisons.

As with other aspects of birding and bird ID, it’s good to build on what you know. Are there American Robins in your yard or local park? In addition to their rich, caroling song, robins have a surprising number of different calls. Spend some time with them and study their repertoire; the knowledge will be useful practically anywhere you go in North America. Plus, it’s a method you can repeat with other familiar species.

To speed up the learning process, don’t just listen passively: Focus and analyze what you’re hearing. Describe the sound to yourself, draw a diagram, or write it down. If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall? Can you adapt the “syllables” into words and make a mnemonic? The Barred Owl, for instance, hoots Who cooks for you, and the Common Yellowthroat sings Wichity-wichity-wichity. But you don’t have to just settle for published mnemonics; listen carefully and then invent your own. Little memory hooks like these will make birding easier the next time around. And as always, repetition helps.

Of course, the best place to learn bird voices is outdoors, with the subjects calling right in front of you. Many people find it more effective to listen and watch at the same time, as the visual of the bird reinforces the audio memory. But when you can’t be out birding, you can take advantage of superb recordings and study aids such as apps, websites, and CDs. Audubon’s own online bird guide and free ID app both include hundreds of vocalizations. There are also good books to help you interpret what you’re hearing, including the new Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. You can pick a few species at a time—starting with birds that are likely in your neighborhood—and listen to them on repeat.

For most places in North America, spring and early summer are the peak seasons for birdsong. This is the perfect time to make a late New Year’s resolution: to improve your birding-by-ear skills. Remember, you don’t have to learn them all. Getting comfortable with a few species will make your birding more impressive and your forays in nature more exciting and enjoyable. 

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Freebie Alert! Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App, which offers detailed profiles, sound libraries, photographs, and range maps for 821 North American species. It's available for iPhone, Droid, and Kindle devices.