How to identify birds by sound

Every year, just as spring migration begins, I get letters from readers who have decided to learn to identify birds by ear. “Where do I begin?” they ask.

Start with what you know. Though you may not know the names of the most-common singers, you undoubtedly have heard at least 10 species many times. That list includes cardinals, robins, phoebes, titmice, mourning doves, killdeer, Carolina wrens, crows, blue jays and chipping sparrows. To test yourself, listen to these songs at by searching “bird songs.”

Assuming you’re comfortable recognizing these 10 species by ear, look for a mentor.

Learning new bird songs alone via books and recordings is difficult. Instead, attend bird walks led by local experts.

For example, nature centers and bird clubs usually schedule great outings in April and May. Tag along, stay close to the leaders, and pay attention. You can learn more about bird songs in a day with a good birder than you can in a month with books and recordings.

In reality, though, busy schedules don’t permit everyone to join group outings. In that case, recordings are widely available on CDs and a variety of Web sites.

The problem with most recordings, however, is that they are tedious and boring. A narrator simply says a bird’s name, and then you hear its song.

Recordings are great reference material, but I find them difficult to listen to for more that 10 minutes before my mind wanders.

That leads me to CD sets titled “Birding by Ear” and “More Birding by Ear” (Houghton Mifflin). There’s also a western edition for that part of the country. Each set retails for $30.

This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended these CDs, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. They are simply the best bird-song learning tool I know.

Rather that just reciting names and playing recordings of bird songs, the narrator in the “Birding by Ear” sets teaches bird songs by grouping species with similar songs together. For example, you’ll find lessons on the “name-sayers,” sing-songers” and “whistlers,” among others.

Learning bird songs doesn’t get any easier than mastering the voices of the “name-sayers.” Whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows are both nocturnal and seldom-seen woodland species, but their voices are unmistakable. To distinguish the two, you simply count syllables.

The eastern phoebe is a nondescript flycatcher that often nests under porch roofs in rural areas. Its song is a raspy, repetitious, “fee-bee.” Phoebes returned to my backyard about 10 days ago.

The eastern wood pewee is another common, nondescript flycatcher with a distinctive voice. In deciduous woods, you’ll hear “pee-a-wee” before you ever see the bird. And you’ll easily hear how the final note slurs higher in pitch.

The “sing-songers” include the American robin, scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak. Robins are probably the most easily recognized bird in North America, thanks in large part to its habit of hunting for earthworms in backyards. Despite its familiarity, many people have never connected the bird to its loud, liquid, repetitious song. Listen for it early in the morning on the way to work and in the evening before dusk. It’s a lively song that, once learned, is difficult to ignore — “cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio.”

Arguably the most stunning bird in the eastern deciduous forest, the scarlet tanager can be surprisingly difficult to see because it usually stays high in the tree tops. Its song’s structure suggests a robin — repetitious, conversational phrases. But while a robin’s voice is clear and musical, a scarlet tanager’s tone is raspy. Many birders say the scarlet tanager’s song sounds like a robin with a sore throat.

And the rose-breasted grosbeak is another spectacular neotropical migrant whose song is often described as a “robin in a hurry.”

Though describing bird songs in words is helpful, nothing beats hearing the actual voices. So take advantage of local field trips or study the individual lessons on the “Birding by Ear” CDs. Each lesson lasts 5 to 14 minutes, so listeners never get bored. Master these lessons, and you, too, can be birding by ear this spring.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my Web site,

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