Many birders rely on colors, shapes, field marks, and other visual clues to identify birds, but in doing so you may miss a whole different world of bird identity clues – birdsong. The songs, calls, and other noises birds make can be every bit as distinctive as their appearance. Fortunately, identifying birdsong is as easy as any other way to identify birds, once you learn to listen.
See Also: A Beginner’s Guide to Birding
Why Listen to Identify Birds?
Using birdsong to identify birds has many advantages birders may not realize, and even if you can see a bird, its songs and sounds can be vital clues for proper identification.
- Unclear, distant, or obstructed views may block key field marks or visual clues, but birdsong will still be audible and easy to use for identification.
- Many birds sing at dawn or twilight when poor light can make it difficult to see the birds, but their songs are distinct and helpful identification clues.
- Some bird species, such as Empidonax flycatchers or meadowlarks, look very similar but their songs are very different and make it easier to tell the species apart.
- Visually impaired birders don’t need to miss out on identifying birds when they learn the auditory clues to identify birds by songs and calls.
- If you’re building a larger bird list, it helps to add birds you can identify by sound even if you can’t see them, and birds that are completely hidden visually can still be heard.
Most importantly, if you study birdsong and learn the intricacies of birds’ vocalizations, you will better appreciate the richness and diversity of birds and the unique voices that separate various species.
Learning to Identify Birdsong
Just like learning to identify birds by appearance, it takes practice and study to identify birdsong, but it does not have to be difficult. By starting carefully and building your skills, you will develop a keen ear for the different tones, notes, and cadences that make each birdsong unique.
See Also: How to Get Started in Birding Feeding
Begin with Backyard Birds
First, start with birds you already know well, such as cardinals, goldfinches, jays, and robins. Watch for these birds to sing and listen carefully to learn their songs. Because you already know these birds well, you can quickly note what makes each one’s song distinct so you can notice when a different song is in the air.
Learn to “See” Songs
As you’re learning different songs, it can be helpful to sketch visual representations of how you hear each song. Peaks and valleys of your sketches can indicate higher and lower pitches, and you can show the relative lengths of notes and changes in the song so you can compare them. These audio spectrograms can help you both see and hear more details in every birdsong.
Note and Invent Mnemonics
If you prefer a different representation of birdsongs, mnemonics can be a good tool for distinguishing songs. A mnemonic is a verbal representation of a bird’s song, such as “who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaaall” to symbolize the hooting call of a barred owl. Many field guides list common mnemonics, or you can invent your own for the birds you hear.
Practice with Recordings
There are many birdsong recordings you can use to practice identifying songs or learning your favorite species. Birding apps often include birdsong clips, or you can download a range of songs to enjoy. Different CDs offer a wide range of identified birdsongs to work with, or you can use online resources and audio directories such as Xeno-canto.org to listen to birds.
Go Birding Early
More birds will sing earlier in the morning, and there are fewer obscuring noises and other ambient sounds such as traffic and construction in the early hours. By birding early, you will have a clearer, sharper ear to hear birds, and you can more easily find them perching in high, open places as they sing, giving you more options for identification even as you listen.
If you want to hear birds and identify their songs, it’s important that you don’t make any noise yourself. Too much noise can not only obscure bird sounds and songs, but can also startle birds and silence their songs. Mute your cell phone, wear clothing that won’t rustle and shoes that won’t squeak, keep rattling things out of your pockets, and watch your footing so you don’t snap twigs, kick pebbles, or make other incidental sounds.
How to Listen to Birdsong
Once you start to hear it, you’ll be amazed at how much birdsong is all around you. But hearing isn’t necessarily listening, and you need to listen carefully to identify birds by their songs. Not only should you hear the bird’s whole song, but listen to distinctive pieces, such as…
- Pitch– How high or low is the song? How does the pitch change?
- Quality– Does the song have a rattle, buzz, whistle, warble, peep, or other type of quality?
- Length– How long is the song overall? How long is each distinct part?
- Volume– Is the song louder or softer at any point, such as at the beginning or end?
- Repetition– Do phrases in the song repeat? How often?
- Rhythm– Does the song speed up or slow down at any point?
When you start to listen to the details of birdsong, you’ll start to realize just how different songs can be. Recognizing those differences is key to identifying birdsong.
Listening Beyond Songs
Once you start to identify birds by the songs they sing, you’ll also start to hear how many other songs birds make. Each one can be another clue to a bird’s identity, so be sure to listen for other distinctive sounds, such as a woodpecker drumming on a tree, a sparrow scratching on the ground, or a duck splashing in the water. Bill clacks, wing buzzes, air sac pops, and so many other sounds are part of birds’ repertoires that once you hear them, you’ll be amazed at all the sounds you’ve been missing by only looking at birds, and birds will never sound the same again.