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The Binocular Advisor

Learning the Songs
of Wild Birds

Question: I went birding with a group of people who kept identifying every bird by its song. I can't remember the songs. How do they do it?
—Sandra Joseph, CA

Stokes Bird SongsHow to learn birds' songs

1. Get an audio field guide to bird songs. Just as you need a book with pictures to learn what birds look like, you need recordings to learn what they sing like. Fortunately, there are many excellent recorded bird song CDs available now.

Birding By Ear CDsOne series that we like a lot is Birding By Ear. It's like a course in bird songs. The narrator, Dick Walton, tells you what to listen for in each song, and then plays the song so you can hear it. It's a jump start to learning bird songs.

2. When you hear a bird's song, describe it to yourself. You may note that the white-breasted nuthatch has a nasal sound to his yenk, yenk, yenk song.

Northern CardinalYou'll hear how each note of the northern cardinal's song is a slippery, downward slurp.

Coming up with the words to describe the quality of a bird's song helps you recognize the bird when you hear it again. To me some of the blue jay's calls sound as if the bird is screaming, but the tiny blue-gray gnatcatcher lisps.

Blue Jay & Gnatcatcher

Tufted Titmouse3. Associate a phrase of English with each bird's song, such as Peter, Peter, Peter for the tufted titmouse. The words will remind you of the rhythm, speed, or pitch of the song.

It's best when you can fit your own words to a bird's song, but feel free to use memorable phrases others come up with. The ovenbird is traditionally said to sing out Teacher, Teacher, Teacher.

And it's hard to improve on Quick, three beers! for the olive-sided flycatcher's call.

California quailOnce you put words to a bird's song, the melody stays with you forever. Chicago no longer means just a city in Illinois to me. It also takes me back to the manzanita-covered mountains of the West Coast, where the California quail greets the morning with loud, ringing Chi-CAA-go!

4. After you've become familiar with a few songs, make a point of listening early in the morning, especially during the hour before sunrise. Some birds sing throughout the day, but you'll hear 100 times as much bird song first thing in the morning as at noon. In spring the dawn chorus is an explosion of song.

5. Summer is a great time to start learning birds' songs, because many of the birds have stopped singing. With a smaller number of songs going at once, it's eaier to single out one singer and concentrate on it. Learning a few summer singers will tune up your ears. Then when next spring comes, you'll be ready.

The thrill of success

Diane PorterAs humans, we are naturally equipped to learn birds' songs. The pitches in our hearing range pretty well match the pitches that birds use in their songs. Each bird species makes sounds that are unique to itself. And we can identify the birds by those sounds just as easily as we can by their shape or color.

Try the ideas mentioned above, and you'll soon be "seeing" birds even when they're hidden in foliage, or behind you, or singing at night. Being tuned in to the songs of birds makes the world a more interesting and fun place to be.

Pretty soon you may want to sleep with a window open, so that you'll hear the birds singing when you first wake up.

© 2004-2007 by Diane Porter.
Bird photos © Michael and Diane Porter




Bird Songs To Go

Seeing Birds
with your Ears