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How to Recognize and Understand Bird Songs and Calls

With a bit of practice, you can identify and understand those chirps and tweets.


Blue-winged Warbler

The arrival of spring brings a delightful chorus of birdsong at sunrise. The sheer abundance of chirps and calls may seem overwhelming at first, but learning how to decipher these sounds is a fun and rewarding part of birdwatching. With a bit of practice, you can identify and understand those chirps and tweets. Sharpening your bird-listening skills will motivate you to build on your bird identification skills and learn about the birds in your area.

 

Bird songs versus calls: What's the difference?

Essentially, they're both ways for birds to communicate, but we classify them into distinct categories because birds use calls and songs for different purposes and in different situations.

 

Calls serve to relay a bird's whereabouts to others of its kind or to alert them to potential threats. Typically brief and comprised of only a few notes, calls are used by both male and female birds and can be heard throughout the year. They might signal the presence of food to fellow flock members or prompt parents to feed their hungry chicks.

 

Songs, in contrast, are used by birds to assert or defend their territory, court potential mates, and foster family bonds. More intricate and melodic than calls, songs are most commonly heard during the spring months. While it was once believed that male birds were the primary singers, we now understand that many females also possess vocal talents. The female Northern Cardinal serves as a prime example, being particularly vocal.

 

Birds dwelling in dense or visually obscured environments, like forests or jungles, rely heavily on songs. Conversely, species inhabiting open landscapes, such as lakeshores, have less need for elaborate songs as they are more visible to potential mates and rivals. Some bird species boast an array of songs, while others stick to just one. Interestingly, certain songbirds rarely or never sing at all — Cedar Waxwings and Blue Jays are rarely heard singing though their calls are distinct.


Examples of bird sounds

The softest vocalizations are given by Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds. The loudest would include the cawing of American Crows and the honking of Canada Geese. The Mourning Dove has no contact call at all unless you include the noisy wingbeats at one flies away. It does have a courtship song and its mournful coo-UU-coo-coo-coo when breeding. A twist on the usual short call notes and longer breeding season song is that of our Black-capped Chickadee. It has a long year-round call of chick-a-dee-dee-dee but a shorter song of a musical fee-bee heard mainly from March to July.


The most joyous songs are given by thrushes such as the conspicuous common American Robin, and the shier Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is also a superb singer. The first pleasing songs each winter come from the rosy pink male House Finches sometimes beginning in mid-January. The most tireless singer is the rarely seen yet common Red-eyed Vireo of forest treetops. It will sing its cherry-up cheery-uup song tirelessly throughout even the hottest summer days for three months about 12,000 times a day! That’s about a million songs and then it departs to spend the winter in the western Amazon rainforest.

 

Other types of bird sounds

Beyond vocalizations, there's a whole world of other noises made by birds. For instance, Downy Woodpeckers announce their presence with rapid drumming on trees or even on the side of your house. Interestingly, you can distinguish between different woodpecker species by counting the beats of their drumming. During mating season, you might hear unexpected sounds like the soft thuds of a Ruffed Grouse's wings or the squeaky flutter of an American Woodcock's flight feathers. Pay attention to more subtle sounds too, like rustling leaves, fluttering wings, and the clumsy splashes of birds in water. These noises can offer valuable behavioral cues and aid in identifying birds.   

 

Using Word Phrases to Remember Bird SoundsThere will be many times while birdwatching when you may not have a view of a bird, but you can hear their call or song clearly. Learning to identify birds by their sound is an important skill that will come in handy with areas that are not easily accessible or even in your own backyard.To help learn these sounds, it is often easier to remember catchy word phrases. These words are referred to as mnemonics. We’ve included some of the most common birds for you to help you memorize them for easier identification. You can also make your own.


  • Barred Owl  "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you awl" 

  • Eastern Phoebe  "A wheezy FEE bee"

  • Great Crested Flycatcher  "Wheep  Wheep  Wheeper"

  • Red-eyed Vireo "Cheery up  Cheery up" (up to 10,000 times a day)

  • Blue Jay  "Jay, jay, jay"

  • American Crow  "Caw caw caw"

  • Black-capped Chickadee "Feebee"

  • Tufted Titmouse  "Peter, peter, peter"

  • White-breasted Nuthatch  "Yank yank"

  • Carolina Wren  "Kettle tea  kettle tea  kettle-tea"

  • Gray Catbird  "Meeooow"

  • Wood Thrush "Ee-oohh-lay"

  • Ovenbird  "Teacher  Teacher  Teacher"

  • Northern Cardinal  "pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty"

  • Indigo Bunting  "See see So so See see"

  • Eastern Towhee  "Drink your TEA"

  • White-throated Sparrow  "Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada"

  • American Goldfinch  "Chicory Chickory"

Learn More about Birds in New England:


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