Listening to Birds


Many birds, especially perching birds, are heard before being seen.  Perching birds may be hidden by thickets, leaves, and tall grasses.  They may be in tree cavities or nests.  They may prefer the higher canopy or be darting in and out too quickly to spot easily.  Most leaders of bird walks and bird trips have studied bird sounds and can differentiate one species from another simply by the sounds.  Individuals who want to enjoy birds more will purchase an ipod, CD, audiotape, video, or software of bird songs for a state or region of the country.  They may listen to bird songs on their travels in the car to and from bird walks to reinforce knowledge of bird songs. 


Birds talk for many reasons. They talk about their location, food, and predators.  They let other birds in their group know their locations after getting separated during foraging or sleeping in distant locations for the night.  They share information on where to find food for the day or season.  They warn of predators and rally the flock to the defense of a likely victim.  Male birds sing to woo a mate, mark their territory, and celebrate new life with song.  The parent birds who hang around long enough for fledglings to try out their wings and hunting skills bid the fledglings farewell with songs or last minute tips for a good life.


Breeding season is the time of year when you can hear the most bird songs.  Around dawn before the wind has picked up or humans head out nosily to work is the best time of day to listen.  If you lie in bed after awakening, you can catch their rhythms and patterns of talk. 


Birds have a slightly differing structure for vocalizing than humans and their body shapes and sizes influence the sounds they produce.  The syrinx is the bird's sound box and it sits low in the body before forking into two bronchial tubes. Special chest muscles influence the tension as air passes from lungs over membranes in the syrinx and vibrate to produce sound.  Some birds can sing duets by themselves. 


In addition to the physique that permits the production of sound there are also habitat barriers that influence the kind of sounds birds make.  These barriers range from gurgling brooks and water falls to large plains and deserts or forests where sound bounces off trees and leaves absorb sounds.  A bird wanting to be heard over grasslands and other open areas is likely to use a buzz sound to carry over great distances and small birds are likely to sing on elevated perches above vegetation to assure they can be heard over  barriers.  For further details on habitat barriers view the article titled Bird Songs by Gareth Huw Davies at the PBS website.

Bird Songs and Climate Changes

A study has just been completed by a collaboration of researchers at National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and McGill University on the relationship between the complexity of bird songs and the role of locations with inconsistent climates.  To see the press release for this
click here.


As you listen, ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Is the rhythm slow or fast, steady or syncopated?
  • Are there pauses or does this bird's song continue without frequent gaps?
  • Is the sound more like a whistle, a rattle, a warble, or a squawk
  • Is the sound high, medium, or low pitched?
  • Is the volume loud, moderate, or soft?
  • Is the quality of the song mellow, raspy, buzzy, breathy, or excited?
  • Does this bird's song remind you of a bouncing ball, a squeaky toy, a stutter, a lisp, a gurgle, a baby's cry, a baby's rattle, playing a game of tag, or getting one's "Zs"?

Birds sometimes are known by their one-part, two-part, or three-part singing.  Blue Jays, however, use all three.  For example, their one-part song is a harsh "Jay, Jay, Jay" and their two-part song is a melodic "Quee-dle".  Sometimes they sing in three parts "Quee-dle-lee". Some birds who repeat the same note with pauses in between include: the American Crow (caw), Cedar Waxwing (zee), Chipping Sparrow (chip), the Dark eyed Junco (tea), nuthatches (ank or yank), Red Crossbill (jip), Pine Warbler (chee), and Prothonotary Warbler (sweet).


Two-part singers include: Black and White Warbler (wee-see), Black-capped Chickadee (fee-bee), Eastern Phoebe (fee-beep), Kentucky Warbler (tor-y), Ovenbird (teach-er), Say's Phoebe (pee-yeet), Tufted Titmouse (chee-va or pet-er), Willow Flycatcher (fitz-bew), and Winter Wren (jump ship). 

Three-part singers include: Common Yellowthroat (witch-i-ty), Connecticut Warbler (see-to-it), Eastern Wood Pewee (pee-a-wee), Olive-sided Flycatcher (quick three beers), Red-winged Blackbird (conk-a-ree), Vermilion Flycatcher (hit-a-see), and Whippoorwill (Whip-poor-will).  

Then there are birds who say their own name such as: Kill-deer, Bob-white, Chick-a-dee, Chuck-will's Widow, God-Whit, Pe-wee, Phoe-be, Pip-it, Red Knot, Scaup, Tow-hee, & Whip-poor-will.

In making comparisons among bird songs pair birds with similarities and then find the uniqueness in each bird.  For example, The Prairie Warbler and the Field Sparrow both have ascending vocalizations.  The Prairie Warbler, however, in ascending has a buzzy quality while the Field Sparrow has a clearer ascension with acceleration and a trill at the end.

Be aware, also, that some birds are mimics of other birds in their neighborhoods.  The Northern Mockingbird got his name from his skillful renditions of other birds.  He can be distinguished by his three to five part phrasing and continual run-on sentences.  Since he likes to show himself, you can readily spot this bird on tops of bushes, tree branches, or lamp posts as well as crossing the street to another tree.


Before visiting a new habitat to watch and listen to birds consider which birds are likely to be found in that habitat.  Books such as The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats by Janine M. Benyus can assist you in identifying birds by habitat.  Then use resources such as the following to assist you in studying bird vocalizations:

  • The Songbirds Bible (book with an accompanying CD)

  • Bird Songs of Florida by Geoffrey Keller (CD)
  • Peterson Field Guides: Backyard Bird Song (CD)
  • Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs (audio cassettes)
  • Watching Warblers by Michael Male and Judy Fieth (DVD or VHS)
  • Watching Sparrows by Michael Male and Judy Fieth (DVD or VHS)
  • Birdjam Ipod (
  • Thayer's Guide to Birds of North America (software that is also available by state or region)
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