by Ingrid Whitaker
Have you ever been in the field with birders who can call out a bird without even seeing it? It is impressive, and daunting, to those with untrained ears. How in the world could she tell what that bird was? And that one, and another? How did she get so good at this? The same way you can.
Learning to bird by ear will give you a decided advantage whether you seek to learn which birds are in your yard. or if you want to increase your life list in the field. Knowing the songs and calls of the most common birds in your area, will alert you to when a new bird is present. Think about it this way, you are far more likely to hear birds than to see them. Being able to screen out those birds whose songs you know, allows your ears to lock onto the new bird, giving you a much better chance at finding and seeing it.
Getting started in birding by ear can be overwhelming. Here are some tips on how to begin and what pitfalls to avoid.
Start with the birds in your yard. Just as in learning to identify birds by sight, having easy access to the birds is key. And you likely know a couple of these birds’ songs already because you see and hear them regularly. If you live in the Northeast, for example, you probably see and hear (chick-a-dee-dee-dee) black capped chickadees all the time.
If you are lucky enough to have a northern cardinal nesting in your yard, you hear their loud, piercing peer-peer-peercall many times a day. There’s two already!
Focus on attaching the calls and songs to the bird. When you see and hear the bird simultaneously you will be much more likely to remember the call next time you hear it. Again, starting with the birds that frequent your yard is perfect for this. Each time you hear a bird in your yard, try to find it. Over time you will remember that bird’s song.
If you are lucky enough to get a wide variety of birds, focus on learning two or three at a time. Once you have these down, move on to learning another two or three. Like most things, this takes repeated practice, but you will be thrilled when without even thinking about it, you find yourself saying, That’s a cardinal; there’s a goldfinch singing high up in the trees; there’s a white-breasted nuthatch calling at the edge of the yard.
Attach an “English” translation to bird calls. Some that are given to birds already fit well. These include the white-throated sparrow, noted as “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”, the ovenbird: “Teacher, teacher, teacher”, the barred owl, “Who cooks, who cooks for you all?” But the translation you assign to birds yourself will be the most memorable to you. I remember the call of the northern parula as, “Bzzz-Beep!” and the common yellow-throated warbler as, “Witchity, witchity, witchity, witch.” I often have my phone with me when I am running in the early morning, and if I can’t identify a bird by its sound, I stop and quickly make note with a translation. I am often surprised to find that when I enter, “What bird says—- ?“, into Google, I get an answer!
Do not spend time listening endlessly to recordings of bird songs. Don’t get me wrong, these can be very helpful when used strategically. But trying to remember the songs and calls of twenty birds you listened to on your way to work, many of which you may rarely see, is not only exhausting, but futile. You simply won’t remember them.
Breaking your learning into smaller, more realistic chunks will be much more effective and satisfying. For that ride in the car or time in the shower, you might make a playlist of the songs of the birds you most commonly see in your yard. Keep it short – again, two or three birds at a time. If you have a birding app on your phone, and there are many great apps for birding (see the resources section at the end of this article), take it out into the yard with you. Most birding apps have not only tips for recognizing a bird by its looks, they have a sound feature you can play as well. Your app will provide you with a ready reference for checking your memory of a bird’s song. Your, I think it’s a robin, but maybe it’s a cardinal question can be quickly answered this way.
Once you know the songs of the birds who regularly visit your yard, your ears will pick up a new visitor singing. This experience happened to me at this point in my birding by ear training, and it was then that I realized the value of this skill.
I was sitting in my coastal Maine backyard one summer afternoon, when I heard the song of a bird I had not yet before heard. Many of the usual suspects were signing too – goldfinches, house finches, robins, cardinals, a grey catbird – but those I knew by sound. This one was different than all of the rest, a song I did not know.
I knew this was a new bird, and I simply had to find it so I could find out what it was. It’s song was loud and strikingly pretty, and I was sure this must be a very beautiful bird. I eventually tracked it down to my neighbor’s property. Being a lobsterman, he had dozens of traps stacked in his backyard. In one of those traps I found a Carolina wren, a rarity for Maine, feasting on insects in one of the traps. I remember thinking two things: How does such a non-descript little bird make such a big, beautiful song? and I can’t believe I just found a new bird by ear!
As someone who never thought she could do this, but has, I hope these tips show you that you too can add birding by ear to your bird identification toolkit. Not only is it useful, it’s fun!
Resources for Birding by Ear
|Big Year Birding:|
|Peterson’s Birding by Ear:|
|Common Birds and Their Songs:|