Name That Tune
Give your birdsong ID skills a boost.
step into the backyard on a summer morning and you’re likely to be greeted by a chorus of chirps and trills. Robins are caroling and chickadees are singing chickadee-dee-dee-dee. Suddenly, a different tune, a snappy wichity-wichity, stands out from the others. A search along the hedge behind the garden reveals a yellowthroat, a new bird for your yard!
Almost all birds make some kind of sounds, and most give both calls and songs. Calls are usually short notes, like the tchip from a cardinal, and you may hear them in all seasons. Songs are usually longer and more complicated, and they’re typically heard in spring and summer. Any time is a good time to begin birding by ear.
Start with Your Backyard Friends
Because learning all the songs may seem overwhelming at first, remember that you don’t have to master every one at once. A good way to narrow it down is to begin at home, focusing on the songs of your most common backyard visitors. Spring and summer are when birds are most vocal, so make plans to spend extra time outdoors in those seasons. Watch the chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches and jays in your yard, but listen to them, too. After learning to recognize backyard feathered friends by voice, build on that baseline knowledge to identify other birds in your area.
A visit to wildlife hot spots provides an opportunity to search for birds in different habitats. Investing the time to learn what birds prefer wetlands, forest or grasslands helps narrow down the number of bird species you hear. For example, chipping sparrows and swamp sparrows sing similar songs
but prefer different habitats. If you are near a big marsh and hear a bird singing a rapid series of chip notes, chances are good that it’s a swamp sparrow. A similar song in your backyard, with no wetland habitat nearby, is more likely to be from a chipping sparrow.
Tricks of the Trade
When you listen to a bird’s song, take an extra step and describe it to yourself. Is it a long song or a short one? Is the tone clear, buzzy or rough? Is the pitch high or low? Are some sounds repeated over and over? Thinking about these questions, and even writing down a description of the song, will help to cement it firmly in your memory.
Speaking of memory, a mnemonic (the first “m” is silent) is a learning trick that helps you remember things. If you can match the pattern of a birdsong to a series of words, that mnemonic will help you remember it later. For instance, it might be easier to recall the eastern towhee’s three-part song if you think of it as saying drink your tea. Or the yellow warbler’s lovely song as sweet-sweet-sweet, I am so sweet. And while some birders hear the white-throated sparrow singing oh, sweet Canada-canada-canada, others think it sounds more like old Sam Peabody-peabody-peabody.
Practicing birdsong mnemonics can also be a fun game to play with kids. Youngsters get a kick out of repeating the song of a Carolina wren as teakettle-teakettle-teakettle. Or the tune the American goldfinch sings during its bouncy flight as potato chip, potato chip, potato chip. Or the magnificent barred owl’s hooting as who cooks for you? who cooks for you all?
Tools of the Trade
From books and CDS to Youtube tutorials and many phone apps, birders will find a plethora of tools for learning bird songs. And while many of these tools are very helpful, there’s no replacement for spending time outside watching for birds and listening as they sing.
One important point to remember about using birdsong apps for your phone: Use them carefully in the field because birds are sensitive to disturbances, especially during the nesting season. When a nesting bird hears a song from an app, it my leave the nest to defend its territory from the “intruder.” This can cause the nest to fail. At some wildlife areas and parks, playing bird songs is actually illegal. Your highest priority should always be respecting the birds in their environment.
Birding by ear also boosts the number of birds you find and identify and adds to the enjoyment of your time outdoors. With some patience and practice, you’ll appreciate the voices of birds as much as their colorful plumage.
A YELLOW WARBLER MAY REPEAT ITS SWEET SONG UP TO 10 TIMES PER MINUTE.
ID birds by their songs