Birding by ear takes practice, and learning how to listen effectively to wild birds can help birders of every level better distinguish different songs, calls and sounds for proper bird identification. But when you hear a bird sing, what exactly should you listen for?
When to Listen to Birds
To sharpen your listening skills, you need to listen when birds are actually singing. The best time of year to listen for most bird species is in the spring or early summer, when songbirds are actively looking for mates and songs and calls are part of courtship behavior. In late winter, some birds also use songs to claim territory, and they will often continue their singing for several weeks or months.
On a daily basis, birds sing more frequently in early morning or late evening when there is less ambient noise to compete with and their songs will carry further. Of course, birds can use various calls at any time of day, and the best birders are always actively listening for alarm tones, woodpecker drumming, nestling chirps or other songs and sounds that can help them find and identify birds.
How to Listen to Birds
Casually listening to birdsong for enjoyment is a great way to pass the time, but precious seconds of song are lost if you don't know how to listen for identification purposes. To make the most of every bird sound…
- Minimize nearby noise by choosing clothes to wear birding with fabrics that do not rub loudly together, and secure any zipper pulls or loose parts of clothing, field bags, cameras, optics and other equipment so there will be no rattles, squeaks or other distracting sounds. Similarly, put a mobile phone on mute or vibrate so its ring does not interrupt birding.
- Watch your footing carefully to avoid rustling leaves or snapping twigs. Keeping quiet in the field will also help birds feel more secure so they are easier to see and are more likely to sing close by.
- Avoid covering your ears in any way; scarves, hats or earmuffs will muffle and distort sounds and could make you misinterpret any bird sounds you hear. Keep long hair pulled back behind your ears, and if you need hearing aids, be sure they are working properly and have fresh batteries.
- When you hear a bird, or any noise that might be a bird, stay still and move your head slowly from side to side to try to catch the sound better. This will funnel the noise into your ears more effectively, and can help you triangulate the bird's position so you can see it as well as hear it.
- Listen through the bird's entire song or several repetitions, filtering out other nearby noises so you can better remember the song. Too many birders act too quickly to pull out a field guide, move around or otherwise take their attention away from what they are hearing, which can blur memories of what you've heard and may cause the bird to stop singing altogether.
What to Listen For
Once you have a good, clear sound of a bird to listen to, start noting specific parts of the call or song, including:
- Pitch: How high or low is the song? Does it change? What variations do you hear?
- Rhythm: Is the song fast or slow? Does the tempo fluctuate?
- Length: How many seconds or beats does the song last? Does it repeat?
- Quality: Can you describe the song? Is it a rasp, whistle, buzz, trill, hoot, chirp or warble?
- Quantity: How many birds are singing? Is each song the same or are they distinct?
- Nonverbals: What nonvocal bird sounds do you hear? Is there any drumming, scratching or wing noises?
It can help to take notes in a birding journal to describe the song you hear, and include mnemonics when necessary to help you recall the tone and quality of the song. At the same time, note other significant information that could help you properly identify the bird, including the season, time of day, weather conditions, habitat and other observations. Not only can this all be vital for identifying the bird, but it can help you learn the seasonal and geographic differences some birds show in their songs, which can further refine your birding by ear skills.
Most important of all, practice listening to birds all the time, everywhere. As you learn to better distinguish the songs and calls of the most common backyard birds, you'll be more prepared to properly identify the unusual tones, chirps and whistles of new birds, and the chorus you hear will become more clear, detailed and familiar every day.
Photo – Western Meadowlark © Greg Schechter