Birdsongs 101: Tips on how to identify birds by song

A spotted towhee on a branch in midsong Createive Commons Share-Alike 2.0 by Mike's Birds
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. –Maya Angelou ((c) Mike’s Birds, Creative Commons)

Learning to bird by ear can be a huge challenge to many, even for experienced birders. However, with the right tools and tips, you can be on your way to tackling new species of birds by their song every day.

In this post, I provide some useful tips that can help you begin identifying birds by their song. By continuing to observe the birds that you see, listening to recordings, and even seeking out experts for advice, you will become more educated and confident with identifying birds not only by sight, but also by their beautiful songs.

Observe and Listen

hiker on hill oerlooking rolling hills in distance.
Listen to bird songs as you walk around. (c) Robert Morris

When you are out birding and spot a bird; stop, look, and listen. Focus on the species and then use your field guide or mobile app to help you identify it. Once you believe you have successfully identified the bird, see if the bird sings. If it does, make that connection between the bird that you have just spotted and the song that it is singing in your head. It may not all stick at once, but with practice and repetition, you are sure to get it!

Listening to Recordings

You can listen to bird songs online as well as through mobile apps such as Merlin Bird I.D. and Audubon Bird Guide. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library is a great resource with more than 600 bird sounds. Or check out the bird calls of Feeder Birds of the Willamette Valley with this video playlist from Neighborhood Naturalist[.

Begin by listening to bird songs of birds you may see often in your background or on your nature walks. Play them often to yourself. As you are listening to songs, listen to and analyze elements like tone, repetition, pitch, and rhythm:

Tone– pay attention to the way a certain bird’s song sounds. Some birds’ songs may sound like a whistle, while others may sound scratchy. Sometimes the song may even come off like a clear trill.

Repetition– some birds may repeat syllables or phrases when they sing. Birds such as Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) will usually repeat their phrases anywhere from one to three times.

Pitch-note the sounds of songs from smaller birds versus larger birds. Smaller birds like Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina), will typically make louder and higher sounds. Larger birds like Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), will usually make deeper sounds.

Rhythm– pay attention to the tempo; some birds may sing very fast, while other birds may sing very slowly.

Recognize Fun Sayings

An owl on a maple tree
The barred owl wants to know, “Who cooks for you?”

When some birds sing, their songs may sound like a phrase. This memory device is known as mnemonics. For example, the Barred Owl (Strix varia) says “Who Cooks for You” while the Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) says “Teakettle, Teakettle.” Some birds like the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) may even say their name: “Fee-be, Fee-be.”

Seek Out Experts

If you know someone who is a more experienced birder, seek out their help and guidance as a tool. More experienced birders may share with you their own personal tips and tricks for identifying birds by their songs. Check out the Audubon Society of Corvallis and Neighborhood Naturalist and attend birding trips or bird walks that are led by experienced birders.

I hope these tips will help get you started with learning how to bird by ear. It is a wonderful skill to have, and with a bit of practice, you will become knowledgeable and be able to continue to identify new birds every day!

Additional Resources

Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds for additional resources and tips.