Birding by Ear Resources

Hello Wild Side Readers!

Have you been paying more attention to the wildlife around your home? Perhaps you’ve noticed quite a few different species of birds flitting about your landscape. A fun challenge is to start identifying those birds by their songs. This is called birding by ear. Birding by ear is an acquired skill and can be overwhelming when you are just starting out, which is why beginning with the familiar yard birds is a good first step. Below I’m listed a few tips to help you get started. I’ve also compiled a list of resources where you can learn more. Happy birding!

1) Pick a Short List of Birds

If you are just starting out learning bird song, pick a short list (10 or so) of birds you are already able to identify by sight. The birds you regularly see around your yard may be the list you choose to start with.

2) Listen to Recordings

To begin learning your bird calls, obtain a CD of Common Bird Calls of Ohio from the Ohio Division of Wildlife. This CD corresponds with their field guide, Common Birds of Ohio. Call your Division of Wildlife District Office to request a CD. (If you know of other free CD of bird songs, let me know in the comments below and I’ll post them here, too.)

You can also listen to bird calls at the below sites, but be careful – these sites list all of the songs and calls of each species (many birds have multiple songs and calls). Usually, the first 1-2 songs listed are the most common. Stick to only a few of the most common songs for each species when you are first learning.

3) Take Time to Really Listen AND Watch

Once you have learned your short list of bird songs, it’s time to test your newly acquired skills! Venture out into your backyard or where ever best to locate the birds on your list. Take plenty of time to really listen (that might mean closing your eyes, listening, and locating where the bird is calling from so you can easily find the bird in your binoculars). Once you have listened, find the bird and watch it. Maybe you also have time to take a few notes, or sketch the bird. Making those connections between sight and sound will really help to you learn and remember that bird.

What should you listen for?

  • Mnemonics – putting words to a sound can be very helpful when learning bird calls. Here is a list of mnemonics

    The song of the tufted titmouse sounds like, “Peter! Peter! Peter!”

    from Fernbank Science Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. Please note, not all species on this list are present in Ohio.

    • Here is also a cute graphic posted by ODNR, Division of Wildlife, on their Facebook page.
  • Song Details – listen for the sound quality, pitch, and different sections of the call.
      • Sound quality – Is the song buzzy like a bee (warblers), clear as a whistle (cardinal), or composed of trills (when a birds uses a lot of sounds in a row that are too fast to count or whistle, like a screech owl)?
      • Pitch – Is the song rising, falling, steady, or variable in pitch?
      • Sections – A new section is when there is a dramatic change in pitch or speed of the song.
    • The sound quality of a bird’s song can be graphed in something called a sonogram. Sonograms can help birders visualize the song of a bird, and help them identify it.
      • Here is an article that describes song details and sonograms in more detail.  I find it can be very helpful to describe what we are hearing, just as we would describe what a bird looks like (i.e. white wingbar, red eye, yellow chest).

4) Bird with a Friend

It can be incredibly helpful to have a friend to bounce IDs off of, and it’s even better if that friend is an experienced birder from which you can learn even more!

5) Look at Every Bird

Ok, so maybe this one is better suited to birding by sight. This is the best piece of birding advice I ever received (thank you, Paul Knoop)! Even if you have already identified the bird you are seeing or hearing, take some time to look at it. When we look at a bird, we are picking up little things about how the bird is moving or behaving like its shape, size, and silhouette, how it’s flying or moving in a tree. It’s these little things that can help you in the future to identify that bird immediately, to pick it easily out of a crowd, or decipher its call from a dawn chorus during the height of migration.

Addition Resources:

Bird Song: The Song Learning Game for Everyone by Cornell Lab of Ornithology  – watch a short video then start the game!

Anatomy of Bird Song Slide by Cornell Lab of Ornithology – takes you to a neat 4-slide presentation about how birds produce sound.

 The Language of Birds by Cornell Lab of Ornithology – 10 minute video on bird song


Thanks for reading and happy birding!

Marne Titchenell

Wildlife Program Specialist

The mnemonic for the eastern towhee’s call is my favorite. “Drink your teeeea!”

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