Birders who listen carefully to the birds they observe will quickly learn that there are many different types of bird sounds that have different meanings and uses. Understanding these different sounds and being able to distinguish them is the first step in effective birding by ear and identifying birds based on sound.
Sounds Birds Make
Birds make a variety of calls, songs and nonverbal sounds with a language as complex as any spoken words.
- Alarm Calls: These sharp, piercing calls are used to warn other birds of danger, and birds will use them when they feel threatened. Alarm calls are typically short but loud and can carry over great distances. Alarm calls may also be used by aggressive birds to threaten others or while chasing other birds away.
- Begging Calls: Made by young birds, these plaintive calls are designed to draw attention and may include small peeps, whines and chirps. Begging calls are not usually loud, but can be heard clearly in the vicinity of a nest. Juvenile birds will continue to use these calls even after leaving the nest, and begging bird sounds are frequently accompanied by wing flutters and other motions.
- Contact Calls: When birds travel in flocks or when they want to signal one another, they use contact calls. These are moderately loud chirps, chips, buzzes and other simple bird sounds that are clear but not as piercing as alarm calls. Mates may use them to keep in touch with one another, or contact calls may be used to alert other birds to a good food source.
- Flight Calls: Many birds have specific calls they will give only in flight, and these can be some of the most useful bird sounds to learn for identifying birds. A flight call may sound similar to contact syllables or it may be slightly more musical, but in general they are used for birds to announce their presence to others while moving.
- Songs: Songs are the most distinctive and familiar bird sounds. These are longer, more elaborate and generally more musical strings of syllables that have many purposes. Birds may use songs to attract mates, to advertise their territory or to discourage intruders. The quality, duration and variation of bird songs depend on the species, and there are also geographic song variations in bird populations. Birds may also have different songs for different times of day, and some birds, such as the northern mockingbird, are excellent mimics of other bird species’ songs and unusual noises.
- Nonvocal Sounds: Many bird species incorporate nonverbal sounds into their language, some of which can function similarly to calls or songs. Drumming, wing beats, wing clapping and bill snaps are all part of birds’ nonverbal communication. Similarly, a bird’s feeding or mating behavior may produce additional sounds such as “booms” at the bottom of dives or scratching noises while foraging that can be useful in proper identification.
How to Use Bird Sounds
Birders who are familiar with the different sounds birds make can use those sounds for auditory identification. For example, the type of call may give birders a clue of what to look for – hearing an alarm call may prompt an observant birder to search for birds of prey nearby, while hearing a begging call may initiate a search for a well-hidden nest. When the bird is spotted, the noises it makes, including the pitch, tone, rhythm and quality of its sounds, can help create a positive identification of the species.
Birding by ear takes practice, but birders who understand the different types of bird sounds can use their ears as well as their eyes to find and identify birds in the field.