Birding by ear takes plenty of work, but the rewards last a lifetime

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Second of two parts

After months of hoping to find this outlaw of a bird, finally, we were close. Very close.

A male Hooded Warbler in Pisgah National Forest / Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

Coming from a dense stand of old-growth trees in the Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina, I could hear this miniature Robin Hood galloping along on his horse. Then he’d toss his hat in the air with a triumphant – but very quick — “Woo-hoo.”

That’s how I visualize the Hooded Warbler singing – three gallops followed by a two-beat, joyous crescendo. It’s is my trick to remember the difference between this warbler’s song and any of his 36 tiny wood-warblering cousins.

If you clump them all together, the 37 warblers that are likely to sing, chip and chirp in the eastern half of the country can make more than a hundred sounds. But the cool thing is, every one of those sounds is unique to just one bird.

When they’re camouflaged by dense foliage, which songbirds often are, the only way to tell if a particular bird is close is to hear it. Suddenly your odds for finding – and photographing — the bird increase exponentially. (For a recording of the Hooded Warbler, click here.)

Like learning a language

At the heart of it, birdsong is a foreign language. Every bird speaks its own, minus the mockingbird and a few other mimics. More than 100 species can be nearby at any given time, depending on the season and habitat. The resulting cacophony at dawn in springtime is beautiful, astonishing and overwhelming.

A Carolina Wren contributes to the dawn chorus.

As with learning languages, it’s those who started as children who tend to be fluent. Some expert ear-birders I’ve met learned later in life by studying hard and going birding nearly every day until they’d mastered the challenge. These are the birders I’d equate with students who’ve gone the cultural immersion route – studying while living among native speakers, i.e. birds.

Once I met a vision-impaired classical singer who birds nearly every day, and she could nail even the toughest songs every time.

So where does it leave the rest of us?

As much as I love birding, remembering the sounds doesn’t come easily, and it highlights my low frustration tolerance. But then again, I have not forsaken all else to go the intense study route. Life keeps getting in the way.

Some birds hint at their identity through vocalization, such as the catbird’s “mews” amidst its many songs.

That said, I do try, and now, after eight years, I have made progress. So far I’ve seen 277 species, and I’m fluent in the language of perhaps a quarter of them. That’s around 70 out of the 277 birds I’ve encountered out of 750 species in the U.S. — and the roughly 10,000 species in the world. Did I mention overwhelming?

There are lots of methods for learning – everything from recordings, games and phone apps to online courses complete with spectrograms giving a visual for how the sound changes in real time.

We’ve put together a list of resources we like, and you’ll find it at the end of this post.

Some things may work better than others, depending on your learning style. That said, here are the strategies that have been the most helpful to me.

A Carolina Chickadee

No.1:  Make a list of the birds you already know.

For me these were the obvious, no-brainer birds whose songs or calls sound like their names. My list included the chickadee, phoebe, wood-pewee, bobwhite and catbird. Sometimes a sound is so distinct it’s easy to remember. The sinister laugh of the Pileated Woodpecker and the eerie calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk are two examples. (Click here for the woodpecker and here for the hawk.)

No. 2: Attach a catchy phrase that mimics the song. Some of these are standard and well established, but you can make up your own.

Examples include “Who cooks for you” for the Barred Owl; “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, fries” for the Carolina Wren; “Drink your tea” for the Eastern Towhee; and “Oh Canada” for the White-throated Sparrow. Google “mnemonics for learning birdsong” for more examples.

The Barred Owl has such a distinctive song — along the lines of “Who cooks for you?” — that it’s one of the easiest to remember.

No. 3: Repetition and phone apps.

Before each birding trip I check Cornell’s eBird app to figure out which birds are most likely to be where I’m going. Then I choose one or two of these birds whose sounds I don’t know, and play their recorded songs using the Merlin Bird ID app. (This is eBird’s free companion app; see the resource list.)

Once I’m out birding, I turn the volume to low, hold the phone to my ear and keep playing the songs while I’m walking. Then if I hear the actual bird, I’ll usually recognize it. (Becoming “fluent” in a particular bird can take more than one trip, and I might forget it between seasons. Over time, however, the song gets easier to recall.)

No. 4: Go birding with someone who’s really good at identifying birdsong and can tell you what you’re hearing.

Eastern Towhee

Just about the time you begin to make progress comes a soul-crushing reality: Most songbirds generally make two categories of sounds – a “song” and a “call.” The call is often just a one-note chip, and to me, they all sound alike.

To compound the problem, many birds have an entire repertoire of sounds, and some of them aren’t included in the apps and other recorded compilations. This is why it’s invaluable to go birding with expert ear-birders.

You’re most likely to get access to these experts at birding festivals and on birding walks organized by local Audubon chapters or birding clubs. You could also go on an extended tour or hire a private guide. (All of this will come up on a quick Google search.)

Red-winged Blackbird

When I’m with an expert who tells me what I’m hearing – or what I’m not hearing – ah-ha moments can happen. I thought I knew both the Carolina Wren and the Red-Wing Blackbird, but experts taught me that each of these birds make specific sounds for specific situations – sounds that aren’t necessarily on the apps. In most species only the males sing, but when they do occur, female songs are different.

No. 5: Get familiar with spectrograms.

Many folks swear by spectrograms — visual depictions of the sounds in graph form. They take some instruction and some practice. (See the resource guide.) Spectrograms that are in color (like the one below) are easier for me, but they’re often presented in black and white.

Spectrograms, graphic representations of songs or calls, demark an audio imprint. This is an endangered Hawaiian Puaiohi Thrush.

No. 6: Group birds by sound type, rhythm.

Some birds buzz and some trill. Some are high-pitched and quiet, while others are low and squawk-y. Some are fast and some are slow. You get the idea. One prevailing thought is to learn the sounds by breaking birds into groups that make sense to you. You might try to learn all of the woodpeckers at once. Or you could compare the buzz-y birds, learning to tell the difference between the call of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher from call of the Tufted Titmouse, for example. Click here, and here.

Also, for a helpful article on this topic from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, click here. Along these lines, a song’s rhythm forms the basis for the aforementioned mnemonics. This is how I can best remember, and thus, my Robin-Hooded Warbler galloping on his horse.

Remember this is a lifetime pursuit. 

So, here we are sitting by the fire on a gorgeous June morning in the wilderness of the North Carolina mountains. Anders plops down with a fresh cup of coffee, and a nearby bird is emitting a low-pitched staccato song.

“Nuthatch,” Anders says. He’s absolutely right.

A White-breasted Nuthatch

“Yes, but which one,” I ask. He shrugs, knowing this conversation just got complicated. All three of the nuthatches likely to be residing nearby in June sound like squeaky toys. However, the Brown-headed is high-pitched, while the other two — the White-breasted and the Red-breasted are low-pitched. (Click here for the recordings.) Anyone can be forgiven for forgetting which is which.  But hey — he knows it’s a nuthatch!

Just about now it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a hobby that lasts a lifetime, and it can take nearly that long to master. But whether you’re a beginner trying to learn the difference between a robin and a cardinal or whether you’ve memorized all of the warblers, it’s best to relax and enjoy it every step of the way.

Today’s post is the second of two parts. The first part explored the progress that science is making in identifying the songs and calls of birds, both to enhance the study of birds and to help birders with apps and other devices that can decipher songs for you.

Finally, here’s a list of resources you might find helpful in learning to bird by ear:

Mccaulay Library is a free wildlife media archive website that contains millions of audio recordings and photographs of most birds in the world. Just type the bird’s name in the search bar and listen away.

We love Cornell’s free Merlin Bird ID phone app that contains recordings for birds that’s easy to use in the field. You can download it in the App Store.

Audubon just redesigned its free phone app for bird identifications in Spring 2020. The app contains birdsong recordings along with photos. Click here.

There are lots of other phone apps specifically for learning songs that you can buy.  Cornell reviews many of them here.

CD’s are a great way to learn bird sounds. Amazon lists several, including those from such trusted names as the Peterson Field Guides.

Audubon’s website has a series of eight articles on learning to bird by ear. Get started with Part 1 here.

Bird Song Hero is Cornell’s free game to help you learn to read spectrograms.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online video course called “Be a Better Birder: How to Identify Bird Songs” relies heavily on spectrograms to help you learn. The three-hour course costs $59.99, and once purchased, you can use it indefinitely.

For a scientific overview on how birds learn to sing and why, here’s a great article from Nature.com.

More to explorer

You’ve started down the path to becoming a birder. What next?

     Let’s say you started birding in the pandemic, bought binoculars, and now you’re hooked. You can identify the songbirds and woodpeckers in your neighborhood. So what happens next?       I’ve been thinking a lot about that question while hiking

3 comments

Liza Bennett June 27, 2020 - 12:22 pm

Thanks so much for this, Bev. I love your analogy that learning to bird by ear is like learning a foreign language. A very inspiring and helpful post.

Reply
farmbirdsDavid Bowes June 27, 2020 - 11:41 am

Masterful piece of (birding) journalism, Bev. By all means submit for awards in every direction!

Faithfully,

David Bowes (who once strolled the St. Louis Zoo’s circa 1922 Bird House with Roger Tory Peterson.)

Reply
Patricia Aakre June 27, 2020 - 11:36 am

Thank you for helping me be a better observer by sharing your anecdotes about how you are learning, and then sending us to experts. It is a great mix to learn by.

Reply

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