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Get To Know Birds Through Song and Vocalization

When I grew up in New England in the 1980s, my mornings started with a chorus of bird songs and classical music. My radio alarm was set to Morning Pro Musica, the iconic WGBH radio show hosted by Robert L. Lurtsema. Every morning his show started with 5 minutes of birds singing before crossfading into a specific classical piece

This chorus of bird song is ubiquitous this time of year. But with Spring, the leaves appear and dominate, making bird viewing much more challenging. So what’s a beginning birdwatcher to do? Make listening to birds a priority. As you begin to notice specific songs you can learn to identify them. A classic for me is the sound of the Barred Owl when walking in a forest "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you awl”.

Learning bird songs is a great way to identify birds whether at night, far away, or hidden in bushes. If you are a beginner, we have some tips that will help you to recognize the consistent patterns of the bird vocals. “Learning bird songs and calls are especially important this time of year” says Peter Alden of Spark Birding. “Phone apps are a great tool to get you started but in the field you don’t always want to be pulling out your phone. I’m old school that way and can assure you it won’t take long to gradually learn the common ones”. Here are some tips from talking with Peter Alden.

1. Know the different between songs and calls

There are two basic kinds of sounds made by birds. Calls are given all year by most birds. They basically say I’m over here, everything is OK. They may indicate a newly discovered food source or warn colleagues of approaching possible danger. Songs are mostly given while defending a breeding territory from other males of the same species. Songs are also heard during northbound Spring migration and practice songs are sometimes given on southbound Fall migration. Some bird songs are very musical and heart-warming, while others are basically chatter or unremarkable. Most female songbirds do not have a true song.

2. Listen To Bird Recordings

There are good sources to listen to bird songs and calls. Start by listening to the common birds you see often. Play them over and over to make the sounds stick. Cornell offers audio guides produced by the Macaulay Library or you can use their free Merlin Bird ID app to listen to songs and calls of birds from anywhere you.

3. Use Merlin Bird ID’s Sound ID Feature

The app recently was updated to identify the birds around you. Just click “record” and the names of the birds will appear! Then you can click on the the specie's songs and calls to recognize and remember them. Along with the sounds is useful information that describes the bird traits and visual cues.

4. Using Word Phrases to Remember Bird Sounds

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. Mnemonics can make a song a snap to remember. Here are a few of the most common.

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"

5. Pay attention to the song’s rhythm, pitch, tone, and repetition

Focus on one song a time. Many birds have a noticeable rhythm, pitch, or tone to their song. Once you get a feel for it, you’ll get to know the bird’s identity. Look at these aspects:

  • Repetition - Some birds repeat phrases before moving on to a new sound. Northern Mockingbirds do this while Brown Thrashers don’t repeat.

  • Rhythm - Get used to a bird’s tempo. Some are easy going like the White-throated Sparrows are much more leisurely and other like the Marsh Wrens sing in a hurry.

  • Tone – A birds tone can be quite distinct. Does their song sound like a whistle or is it harmonic or vibrating, or a clear trill? The tone of a bird’s voice can give you a clue to the bird’s identity even if there is not a familiar pattern.

6. Join Field Trips to Learn From An Expert!

While you can learn bird songs from scratch it’s more fun to have a bird expert or fellow bird watcher point them out to you. Check for a nearby bird club or join a field trip with Spark Birding!


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