Birding By Ear: Learning Birds Calls and Songs

singing male Robin
Singing male Robin

Learning bird calls and songs makes me feel like an expert. I feel like an expert, but I have a long road ahead as I learn the calls and songs of the common birds in my area.

Expert birders identify 90% of birds by ear. They listen to the vocalizations of birds and can tell what species is making the sound. This is a useful birding skill to have in poor light conditions in forests, thickets and at night.


A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

Bird Songs and Calls Help Me Identify Birds

Knowing some bird calls came in handy when I was in the forest last weekend. I heard White-breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. I identified them before they flew into view. But my prize sighting last week was a huge Pileated Woodpecker.

The large woodpeckers like Flickers and Pileateds, to me all have maniacal laughs, calls. I heard the Pileated long before it flew into view. It is a big bird, about the size of a crow. It continued to call as it landed heavily on the side of a large tree after large tree. Then it flew out of through the forest, calling hysterically all the way.


Chickadee (Photo courtesy of Federal Wildlife Service)
Chickadee (Photo courtesy of Federal Wildlife Service)

Birds Sounds and Calls are Messages

Birds can tell us what is happening. House Sparrows, chip, chip, chip as they feed at my feeder. The call is a sociable, friendly communication between birds. House Sparrows suddenly go silent and fly to hidden spots as a predator like a hawk is flying overhead.

In almost every habitat, certain species serve as the sentinels. In most areas the jays, crows, squirrels, chickadees serve as the town watch. Last summer I watched as a screeching Blue Jay dive-bombed a slinking cat. The other birds quietly waited in the trees as the Jay took care of business.


American Redstart bird, male
American Redstart bird, male. Photo courtesy of Dan Pancamo Photography found on Wikimedia – 3 May 2015

The Difference Between Bird Songs and Calls

Songs differ from calls. Songs are longer and melodic and complex, whereas calls are short and simple. They sing songs to establish territories and to create and maintain pair bonds.

Many birds don’t sing. They just have a variety of calls. Songbirds are called songbirds because they sing. An owl doesn’t sing. Neither do woodpeckers, hawks, gulls, crows or many others.


Birds Speak During the Day and Night

During summer, I often lie in bed in the early morning and try to identify who is making which sounds. Birds sing most frequently in the very early morning and late afternoon until dusk. IF there are enough birds in your area, listen for the magical sound of the Dawn Chorus. During the high sun and heat of a summer day, birds sing the least.

In summer, the Ovenbirds and Northern Mockingbirds sing both day and night. I often hear the song of a Northern Mockingbird on bright moonlit nights.




Breeding Season Vocalizations

During the breeding season, a male Cardinal perches on the same tree top each year as he sings loudly and clearly that this is the boundary of his territory. Noting which high spots birds sing from in the spring let you know what they consider the edges of their domain. In most species, only the male does the singing.

Calls are single brief sounds that both sexes make year-around. They change little from beginning to end. And can be high or low pitch with clicks, buzzes, whistles or other sounds. Calls are simpler than songs. They are used to communicating among birds in a flock or in an area.



Flight Calls

They make flight calls while in the air or when a bird intends to fly. The flight call can often to be heard as birds migrate overhead at night. Most songbirds migrate at night.

Other calls are alarm calls, distress calls, threats and begging among others.

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)


Winter is a Great Time to Listen and Learn Bird Calls

Winter is a good time to learn bird calls because only the winter residents are around. There are only about thirty birds who hang around Philadelphia in the winter. The leaves are off the trees and shrubs and birds are easier to spot. See Winter Birding and How to Master It.


Hints for Learning Birds’ Calls and Songs

The key: listen to sounds repeatedly.

  • Find a part of the song you can recognize
  • Use phonetic words and phases to help you remember the sounds in the calls or songs
  • Compare the sounds to other sounds you know
  • Listen to recordings. I use Birding by Ear (a Peterson Guide)
  • Some birds say the names we have given them. Phoebe and Whip-poor-wills announce what they are called, so does the raspy call of the Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
  • Use memory aids
  • Try to imitate or describe the call
Bird sounds and calls can be heard online at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)


Where to Find Recordings of Bird Calls and Songs

I listen to the Peterson Guide, Birding By Ear. This cd helps you to learn the primary songs and calls of common birds. The cd bundles the calls into groups to help you learn. An example of the groups are, “whistlers”, “habitat groupings” and “name-sayers” among others. It is like taking a workshop on learning birds sounds.

There are four flavors of Birding By Ear to choose from:

Birding by Ear – Eastern/Central Region

More Birding By Ear – Eastern/Central Region

A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)
Covers the songs and calls of 267 species – all the most common and vocal birds found east of the Rockies.

A Field Guide to Western Bird Songs: Western North America (Peterson Field Guide Audio Series)

I put Birding By Ear on my iPhone/iPod and listen to it as I workout at the gym. No one knows I am listening to Cardinals and Ovenbirds as I walk the treadmill.

Audubon Birds app for the iPhone/iPad also has bird calls for each species but the calls and songs are not organized like Birding by Ear which aim to teach you the sounds through exercises.


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