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December 18, 2012

Bird Watching with Your Ears

Listen in to discover birds you might not see

The Humane Society of the United States

  • gray catbird

    The call of a gray catbird sounds like a cat's meow. iStockphoto

  • white-throated sparrow

    The white-throated sparrow songs are often described as "Oh Sweet Canada." iStockphoto

  • brown thrasher

    The brown thrasher has a call that sounds like a smacking kiss. iStockphoto

  • blue jay

    Along with a variety of other sounds, the blue jay can mimic the red-shouldered hawk. John Harrison

  • The black-capped chickadee sings a two-note song distinguishing this bird from the Carolina chickadee who sings a four-note song. Scott Grant

If you’re hoping for a glimpse of a rare (or shy) bird, let your ears do the stalking. Your ears can lead you to hidden singers you might never see, and they’re often more accurate than your eyes in identifying species.

Any season will do

Even though bird song truly bursts out in spring, you can hear snatches of what to expect from winter residents—even during the coldest days with the shortest hours.  (And besides song, there are plenty of other things to listen for.)

Birdsound basics

About 5,000 bird species are songbirds—birds who produce the longer, more complex vocalizations known as songs. While calls are instinctual, songs are learned. Each bird has one basic song, but some have up to several hundred different variations. Brown thrashers have up to 2,000 different song types!

Most birders focus on songs because they’re more distinctive and easier to remember, not to mention some of the loveliest sounds you might ever hear. But calls are essential to everyday avian life.

The most common calls

  • Alarm calls to signal danger
  • Contact calls to help birds find one another
  • Flight calls to keep flocks together

The splendid syrinx

Birds produce songs in the syrinx, which is similar to our larynx but more powerful and intricate. The syrinx’s position at the base of the windpipe allows some birds to sing two separate songs at once—and even talk with their mouths full!

The power of song

Birdsongs serve serious functions. In most species, only the males can sing, and most sing only during mating season. They croon to establish territory and to advertise themselves as worthy mates.

Most birds' voices match their habitats. Species that thrive in open land sing at higher frequencies in tones that carry well without distortion. Forest inhabitants have more penetrating, low-frequency voices. Birds living in dense woodlands often have the most beautiful voices—nature’s way of preventing them from hiding their light behind a bush.

Identifying songs

Learning bird songs by ear is not easy. Start with the easiest songs, and gradually add to your collection. The whippoorwill and bobwhite help out by speaking their names, and some—like the “meowing” gray catbird—have clues in their names.

There are challenges when identifying songs. Some birds may improvise and change their tunes a bit. Species in different parts of the country often develop a type of regional dialect
Other birds are master mimics—copying the songs of other birds.

Sounds like...

Bird guides that include written transcriptions of songs, and field recordings can help you develop your voice identification skills. Use words or phrases to help remember calls and songs. “Pizza” is a  good way to remember the Acadian flycatcher’s “PEET-sah,” and the song of the white-throated sparrow is “Old Sam Peabody.” 

Name that tune

Once you’re familiar with the voices of your favorite birds, go further to listen for unknown songs. Try to identify the singer by sight and keep a written record of the tune. With practice, you’ll be able to recognize more and more species from their voices. In the meantime, prick up your ears and enjoy the free concert!

Get some backyard practice

Our Urban Wildlife Sanctuary Program can help you turn your backyard into a haven for wildlife—and attract the birds you'd most like to rock out with. Join today!

Resources

» Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds, an online guide to birds and their sounds
» Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central: A Guide to Bird- Song Identification CD by Richard K. Walton and Roger W. Lawson. 
» Bird Song: Biological Themes and Variations by Clive K. Catchpole & Peter J. B. Slater. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003.
» Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs by Noble Proctor. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2001.

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