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Bird ID Skills

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Songs & Calls

When a bird sings, it's telling you what it is and where it is.
Learn bird calls and open a new window on your birding.

You can only see straight ahead, but you can hear in all directions at once. Learning bird songs is a great way to identify birds hidden by dense foliage, faraway birds, birds at night, and birds that look identical to each other. In fact, when biologists count birds in the field, the great majority of species are heard rather than seen.

Learning calls and songs helps you in two ways: First, you can do a quick survey of what’s around before you’re even out of the parking lot. And second, when you hear something you don’t recognize, you know where to put your attention.

Owls and nightjars are obvious examples of the usefulness of hearing in identification. Another great example are the dozen or so confusing flycatchers in the Empidonax group. These birds look so similar they’re sometimes impossible to identify even in the hands of a bird bander with a precise set of measurement calipers. But all that uncertainty vanishes as soon as they open their mouths.

Five Tips for Beginners

Watch and listen

When you see a bird singing, the connection between bird and song tends to stick in your mind.

Learn from an expert

It’s much harder to learn bird songs from scratch than to have a fellow bird watcher point them out to you. Check for a nearby bird club or Audubon chapter and join a field trip.

Listen to recordings

Start by listening to recordings of birds you see often. Play them often to make the sounds stick. Our online bird guide has more than 600 sounds you can listen to, with thousands more available in a searchable format at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. You can also purchase regional audio guides produced by the Macaulay Library.

Say it to yourself

Some songs almost sound like words – who can mistake the Barred Owl's "Who cooks for you all?" Mnemonics can make a song a snap to remember.

  • Barred Owl

Details, details, details

Break the song apart into its different qualities, including rhythm, pitch, tone, and repetition. As you listen to the birds around you and study the recordings, try placing the songs in different categories as shown below.

How to Listen to a Song

When you first listen to a dawn chorus in full swing, the sheer onslaught of bird song can be overwhelming. How does anyone start to pick apart the chirps, whistles, and trills that are echoing out of the woods? The answer, of course, is to concentrate on one bird at a time – and that approach holds true when you're trying to learn individual songs, too.

Don't try to memorize each entire song you hear. Instead, focus on one quality of the sound at a time. Many birds have a characteristic rhythm, pitch, or tone to their song. Once you zero in on it, you'll have a better sense of the bird's identity. When you combine these characters, you can narrow things down even further. Here are a few examples:

Rhythm

Get used to a bird's characteristic tempo. Marsh Wrens sing in a hurry, while White-throated Sparrows are much more leisurely.

  • Marsh Wren
  • White-throated Sparrow

Pitch

Most birds sing in a characteristic range, with smaller birds (like the Cedar Waxwing) typically having higher voices and larger birds (like the Common Raven) usually having deeper voices. Many bird songs change pitch, as in the Prairie Warbler's rising, buzzy song or the Canyon Wren's sweet descending whistles. Some birds are distinctive for having steady voices, like the Chipping Sparrow's trill.

  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Common Raven
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Canyon Wren
  • Chipping Sparrow

Repetition

Some birds characteristically repeat syllables or phrases before moving on to a new sound. Northern Mockingbirds do this many times in a row. Though Brown Thrashers sound similar, they typically repeat only twice before changing to a new syllable

  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Brown Thrashers

Tone

The tone of a bird's song is sometimes hard to describe, but it can be very distinctive. To begin with, pay attention to whether a bird's voice is a clear whistle, harsh or scratchy, liquid and flute-like, or a clear trill. If you can remember the quality of a bird's voice, it can give you a clue to the bird's identity even if the bird doesn't sing the same notes every time. Here are a few examples:

  • Whistles:
    • Black-capped Chickadee
    • Tufted Titmouse
  • Harsh sounds:
    • Blue Jay
    • American Crow
  • Liquid, or flutelike:
    • Wood Thrush
    • Hermit Thrush
  • Trills:
    • Dark-eyed Junco
    • Pine Warbler
  • Mnemonics:
    • Carolina Wren (germany-germany-germany)
    • Northern Cardinal (birdie-birdie-birdie)
    • Common Yellowthroat (wichity-wichity-wichity)
 

Spectrograms

  • White-throated Sparrow

    White-throated Sparrows have clear, pure whistles that show up on a spectrogram as straight lines. As the pitch of the song drops, the lines show up lower on the graph.

     
  • Song Sparrow

    This sparrow's song is much more jumbled. The spectrogram lets you see the sharp introductory notes and the trills and whistles that follow it.

     
  • Northern Cardinal

    The cardinal's song is a series of sweet, slurred whistles. Watch the curving lines on the graph as you listen to the pitch changing.

     
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker

    Some bird calls, like this woodpecker's kwirr, sound nothing like a whistle. The spectrogram shows these kinds of sounds are mixtures of many pitches at once. The graph helps pick apart those subtle details.

     
  • American Goldfinch

    The American Goldfinch's long, varied song lets you see how lots of different sounds look when they're translated into a spectrogram.

     

Ever wish you could “see” a sound so you could study its details? Spectrograms allow you to do just that. They’re simple graphs that show you the frequency, or pitch, of a sound, its loudness, and how these change over the course of the sound. With a little practice, they can reveal much more about a sound than your ears could ever detect on their own.

In the spectrograms at the right, you can read the sounds almost like you might read a sheet of music. The higher the marks on the graph, the higher the pitch of the sound. The brightness of the marks indicate how loud the sound is at that moment: blue means fairly quiet; green and yellow are loud. As you move from left to right on the graph you move farther along in the bird’s song.

Try the sound player to hear – and see – five examples of common bird songs. Start with the simple, clear whistles of a White-throated Sparrow. Then compare that to the chips and trills of a Song Sparrow. You can see each note in the trill, and see differences in how each chip is made. You can also look at the more complicated whistles of a Northern Cardinal and study the makeup of a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s harsh kwirr call. Finish with the aural smorgasbord of an American Goldfinch's 25-second song.

Learn More

  • Study spectrograms for hundreds more species in the Macaulay Library archive. Their viewer lets you slow down playback to hear the intricate details
  • If you make your own recordings, you can make spectrograms for them with Raven Pro or free Raven Lite software, developed at the Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics Research Program
  • Find out more about spectrograms on the Bioacoustics Research Program's website