Spring is the perfect time to start listening to nature’s amazing symphony of sounds. And in my opinion, birds are the best musicians on the planet. When I’m outside, I try to identify which birds I’m listening to. Personally, however, I can identify the calls of both frogs and toads easier than I can birds. But I’m learning. Though identifying bird songs can be both beguiling and bewildering, I found some tips that will help the novice birder like me. Here’s what I learned:
Hundreds of species breed in North America, so it’s challenging for a listener to differentiate between their many songs. It takes practice and a good ear, but almost anyone can learn to distinguish the vocalizations of our common songsters. And with this ability comes an enhanced enjoyment of the outdoors.
Learning bird songs is in part a process of elimination. First, acquaint yourself with the species in your area and what habitats they frequent. For example, you shouldn’t expect to hear the bubbly refrain of a winter wren in the middle of a hay field, since they prefer shaded hemlock ravines. Many excellent field guides are on the market, and local species lists are available at most nature centers and online to help you narrow the choices.
For my example (because it’s where I live), let’s consider birds that call the Northeastern woodlands home. These birds have such a wide range, they’re most likely the birds in your area too, if you don’t already live in the Northeast. Among the many residents of woodland habitats are thrushes, vireos, and warblers. Tackling the first two is fairly easy given that each includes a relatively few species. Warblers, with 25 to 30 species, are another matter because of their sheer diversity.
The ubiquitous American robin is a thrush, as is the bluebird. But the dark woodlands hold some of our most notable singers — veery, wood thrush, hermit thrush, and Swainson’s thrush. Their songs are reedy and flute-like — ethereal and enchanting. The veery‘s soft refrain is a down-the-scale “veer, veer, veer,” while the wood thrush sings a clear bell-tone “ee-o-lay.” The hermit thrush‘s song is similar to that of wood thrush, but higher and thinner. And the Swainson’s thrush, found only in upper elevation boreal forest, sings a tune reminiscent of the veery’s but rising instead of falling.
Veery Listen here
Wood thrush Listen here
Hermit thrush Listen here
Swainson’s thrush Listen here
The songs of vireos, which are a bit larger than warblers, but less active, are composed of short, monotonous phrases. Red-eyed vireos sound as if they are talking to themselves — “see me, here I am, up here.” The cadence is almost frantic, with virtually no pauses. The blue-headed vireo‘s phraseology is deliberate and mellow, while the yellow-throated vireo sounds like a horse blue-headed. The short phrases, repeated over and over, unmistakably say vireo.
Red-eyed vireo Listen here
Blue-headed vireo Listen here
Yellow-throated vireo Listen here
With 25 to 30 species in the Northeast, these small, active, colorful birds may seem daunting to identify, but each warbler species’ song is unique and learnable. Many birders use mnemonics — cute little phrases — to help them remember these songs. A quick “weeta, weeta, weeteo,” approximates the song of the black, yellow, and white magnolia warbler. A lazy “beer, beer, bee,” is uttered by the male black-throated blue warbler. And an emphatic “teacher, teacher, teacher,” is the refrain of the ovenbird, a large brown warbler that spends a lot of time on the forest floor. Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America and other guidebooks include such useful memory aids. Of course, some woodland inhabitants aren’t part of these groups, including the previously mentioned winter wren, the scarlet tanager, the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the black-capped chickadee whose breeding song is a clear whistled “fee-bee.”
Magnolia warbler Listen here
Black-throated blue warbler Listen here
Ovenbird Listen here
Be a good listener.
When you’re outdoors, don’t be overwhelmed by the mixture of different bird songs. Concentrate on one song and block out all the others. Take some time to truly listen to the song and make notes about its quality (is it horse or whistled?), speed (fast or slow?), and pitch (high or low?). If you’re musically inclined (which I am not), write the notes down. Another option is to make up your own mnemonic to help you interpret what the bird is “saying” as a clue to remember its song. To help you with that, consider getting Sibley’s Birding Basics. Then, when you get a chance, refer to your notes as you listen to some of the increasingly available audio aids, such as CDs (Walton’s Birding by Ear CDs provide tutorials for comparing and contrasting similar songs) or online resources. The important thing is to get out there and listen. Start modestly by learning a new species each day or week, and then enjoy the concert!
Cornell University’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds has a huge collection of bird song recordings available online.