posted May 3rd, 2012; last edited May 3rd, 2012 –– David Sibley

Learning to Listen to Bird Songs

To learn bird songs, it is first important just to notice bird sounds. Train yourself to hear them and to hear the differences. Take a minute periodically while you are birding to stop, relax, maybe close your eyes, and just listen. Don’t try to identify the species at first, but listen for patterns and try to distinguish the different sounds you are hearing. Even if you can’t identify the species, just knowing that three species are vocalizing is a very important bit of information and is the first step towards identifying those species.

Here is a recording for practice – a singing Golden-winged Warbler with multiple background species:

A singing Golden-winged Warbler

In the background I can hear Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Alder Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and possibly a couple of others.

Notice that the high buzzy zeee-bzz-bzz-bzz song of the Golden-winged Warbler (in the foreground) is given at regular intervals throughout. This is typical singing behavior for most birds and the predictable timing of songs will help tease apart the chorus of sounds that you hear.

Start the recording again and listen for the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. At 0:05 seconds the mellow whistled slurs of a Grosbeak’s song begin, and as the recording continues you will hear that bird again at 0:13, 0:25, 0:35, and 0:46 seconds – a very regular schedule of singing about every ten seconds.

The nasal, emphatic ree-bee-oo of an Alder Flycatcher first occurs at 0:04 seconds, very faintly again at 0:12, and clearly at 0:19, and several more times after that. You can pick out any bird song in the recording, and listen for it’s reoccurrence later, and in this way you will be able to sort out the voices in this crowded soundscape.

Listen for the differences in these birds’ voices – the tonal quality of the sounds. Words only begin to describe the differences – buzzy, mellow, nasal, etc – but it is this overall quality that allows you to pick out each voice from the crowd in an instant. In the same way you can pick out the sound of violin, flute, or trombone in an orchestra, and once that “voice” is isolated you can focus on the details such as the pitch and rhythm of that sound.

In the next installment we’ll introduce the main categories of things to listen for in bird song: pitch, rhythm, and quality.

Recording credits

All of the recordings linked here are from the collection at http://www.xeno-canto.org/. This outstanding resource features the work of thousands of dedicated bird sound recordists – a “community database of shared bird sounds from the whole world.” As you continue to study bird songs it will be an invaluable reference.

7 comments to Learning to Listen to Bird Songs

  • Ray Smart

    When I first started birding I used to hear them at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield, MA. Then over the years less and less as the Blue-wings “took over”!

    • Yes, Golden-winged Warblers are officially gone from Massachusetts as a breeding bird, replaced by Blue-winged. The reasons are not clear, but the slow and steady shift northward has been going on for at least a hundred years.

  • jmj

    hm, it appears that Andrew has identified the background species in that recording as a Scarlet Tanager rather than a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

    • I hadn’t noticed that, thanks for pointing it out. The prominent song I’ve featured in this post sure sounds like a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. There may be just a phrase or two of Scarlet Tanager at the very beginning of the recording, but I don’t hear it again in the rest of the recording. I’ll try to get in touch with Andrew to find out more.

      • jmj

        To be honest, it does sounds a bit more Grosbeak-ish to me as well, but then I’ve always had a bit of trouble with those two species ;)

  • Jesse Ellis

    I agree that the main warbly song is Rose-breasted Grosbeak, though I too can hear a few buzzy notes at the beginning that seem like they could be Scarlet Tanager.

    Am I also hearing Song Sparrow giving “chimp” calls?

    • Yes, those are song sparrow calls, and I agree there are a couple of notes at the very beginning that might be Scarlet Tanager. I heard from Andrew Spencer (the recordist) who says he doesn’t remember the details of making that recording, but he agrees that the sound is a grosbeak. The Scarlet Tanager listing was probably just a typo. Browse around Xeno-canto to see how many recordings Andrew has contributed there, and how many hours that represents, and I think we can forgive him the occasional lapse in data entry!

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