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Birding by Ear Basics

How to Identify Birds by Sound


Singing Bird

Some birds, such as the savannah sparrow, may be easier to identify by song.

Alan Vernon

Birding by ear, or learning to identify birds by sound, is a valuable skill for any birder to develop. By understanding and recognizing bird sounds, you can have a much richer and more enjoyable birding experience.

Why Learn Bird Sounds

Many birders focus primarily on learning to identify birds by sight based on plumage, colors and field markings. Learning to identify birds by sound, however, can help birders identify many birds whose songs and calls are more distinctive than their coloration. Tuning your ear to a bird’s song can also help you locate birds more easily instead of relying on brief flickers of moment through dense trees and brush, and birders who recognize birds’ songs can also enjoy birding when low light levels and poor visibility may restrict visual birding. Most important, however, is the fact that a bird’s song is yet one more clear field mark for its positive identification, and combining a knowledge of bird sounds with visual sightings can help you better appreciate the diversity of avian life you see.

How to Go Birding by Ear

It takes practice to effectively identify bird sounds. To begin birding by ear…

  • Get Familiar: Listen to common bird calls and songs for your regional species so you know what tones and sounds to listen for in the field. Recordings are available from bird compilation CDs, online resources, specialized books and electronic downloads to help you practice listening to bird songs and tune your ears to the right notes.

  • Visit Early: Birds are more vocal with distinctive songs in the early morning since still, cool air will carry their songs further and louder. This also makes the songs easier to identify if you are birding early in the day.

  • Be Still: Birds have sensitive hearing and may fall silent if they feel threatened or disturbed by approaching birders. Walk slowly and carefully along a clear trail, stopping to listen frequently along the way and giving the birds a chance to use their voices. When you hear a bird, tune out other noises and focus only on the bird, turning your head from side to side to help pinpoint the direction of the sound.

  • Identify Call Types: The first step in identifying the birds you hear is to understand what calls they are making. Birds make many different types of sounds, and threat calls, alarm or distress calls and regular songs can sound very different even from the same species. If you know which calls you’re hearing, you’ll be able to identify the birds making them more easily.

What to Listen For

When you’ve isolated a bird call, you have to listen to it carefully for a positive identification. Just as observing birds carefully and looking for all the details of their plumage is necessary for proper identification, so too is careful listening essential. While birding, you should listen for…

  • Pitch: How high or low is the song? How does it change in a single call? Where in the song does the pitch change?
  • Quality: Would you describe the song as a warble, buzz, rattle, screech, whistle, bugle or some other tone?
  • Length: How long is the song? Can you count the seconds it lasts?
  • Tempo: How many beats does the song have? How quick are those beats? What pauses are part of the song?
  • Volume: Does the song change volume? If so, where and how?
  • Repetition: Are the same syllables repeated several times? How many times?

Once you’ve clearly distinguished the song, compare it to your field guide or audio resources to try to identify the bird. At first this may be difficult unless you are able to see the bird as well, but with practice you will learn to identify many birds by sound alone.

More Birding by Ear Tips

To make the most of auditory identification:

  • Start with the birds you are most familiar with, including your backyard birds. Because you see and hear these birds most often, you will be able to practice and perfect your birding by ear technique while being certain of the birds’ identities.

  • Learn the regional accents of your local birds. Many birds develop geographic variations in their songs that can make identification more challenging, particularly if you travel while birding.

  • Take notes on the bird sounds you hear in a field journal or notebook. By writing detailed descriptions of the sounds, you’ll force yourself to listen more closely and you will have a reference to use when comparing to audio clips or field guides.

  • Have fun listening to birds and learning their language, even if you can’t always identify them by sound alone. Just as it is impossible to visually identify every bird in the field, it will also be impossible to identify every one you hear, though perfecting your bird sound identification techniques can make this hobby even more rewarding.

Photo – Savannah Sparrow © Alan Vernon

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