Learning Bird Vocalizations - Birding Basics
(Birding by Ear)
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 01-15-2012
Almost every bird species in the Southeast can be identified by its unique vocalization, providing the species is making vocalizations. Many species become quiet after breeding season and do not "sing", while others "sing" throughout the year.
Not only does a thorough knowledge of bird vocalizations help you identify bird species, it can help you locate birds of interest also. While visual identification requires a line of sight vantage point, your hearing provides a 360 degree field of opportunity.
As mentioned before in the "Bird Identification" section, bird vocalizations are usually broken down into two categories: bird songs and bird calls. Both songs and calls can be used in the identification process.
Bird Songs are generally the most distinctive vocalizations and are more melodic with phrases lasting longer than calls. Bird songs are used to establish and maintain territories and to attract/maintain a mate. Generally it is the male bird that sings, though there are exceptions. Many species only sing during the breeding season.
One should note that there can be variations of the typical song given by an individual species. Sometimes the variations are region specific, while other times individual species have variations within the same region.
Bird Calls are used for various communication purposes, such as keeping members of a flock in contact, flight calls, feeding, or for alarming. Generally calls are short repeated chips, chirps, and trills. Both male and females use calls. Unlike many bird songs, calls are made year round. Although calls can sound similar among some species, one should note many times it is the call that can be used to make the positive identification when two species songs are similar.
Methods for learning bird vocalizations
Bird songs (and calls) can be learned using a combination of the following methods:
There is no substitute for field experience when it comes to learning bird vocalizations. Hearing and visually identifying a species in the wild sets that vocalization into memory.
Studying and listening to bird song recordings.
There are many bird song collections available for purchase either on compact disc as vocalizations only or included in software. Be aware that quality and quantity do vary among vendors. Suggested CDs and software are listed a little further below.
Applying phonetic representations (such as those used in the field guides).
For example, "Peterson's Birds of Eastern and Central North America" has the follow descriptive representations: Black-throated Green Warbler - "zee zee zee zee zoo zee" or Great Crested Flycatcher - loud whistling "wheep!" and/or rolling "prrrrrreet!"
An example of a popular mnemonic phrase is the one for remembering the White-throated Sparrow song, "Oh Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody". The entire mnemonic phrase represents the metering (timing) of the notes sung by the White-throated Sparrow. "Oh Sam" represents the two long introduction notes and the "Peabody" represents the last three phrases which each contain three notes slurred together (resembling the syllables in "Peabody").
Applying adjectives and adverbs to describe the quality of the bird vocalization.
Examples of using adjectives or adverbs might include: "flute like" for the thrushes, "whistle like" for the Eastern Meadowlark and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, "buzzy" for the Blue-winged and Golden Winged Warbler, a "harsh Rattle" for the House Wren call, a "descending whinny" for the Screech Owl or Downy Woodpecker, or "nasally" for the Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Realize that the examples in the last 3 bullets (phonetics, mnemonic, and adjective/adverb descriptions), are popular representations and there is no reason one shouldn't make up their own versions. What works for you is the right thing to use.
As an example, I like to group the birds that trill into "insect sounding" and "non-insect sounding" categories. What sounds like an insect to me might not to other folks. I have also attached the description "small yappy dog barking" to the Black-crowned Night Heron. Others may not think it sounds like a small dog barking at all. But if it helps me remember, that's what counts.
Learning bird vocalizations requires repetitive study in addition to field experience. Don't expect to memorize 50 bird songs in a week and remember them the next. It's important to experience vocalizations in the field to help set particular species into memory. There is no substitute for field experience.
Bird Vocalization Learning Tools
The following are suggested tools for learning bird vocalizations. While there are many methods and resources available for learning bird songs, I personally use the following and endorse all of them. I placed the tools in what I consider a logical order of progression. If you are just starting out I strongly suggest the first two sets of audio CDs. If you are at an intermediate level with your bird song repertoire, then Larkwire, the Thayer Software, and/or the Stoke's 3 CD set would be appropriate.
Peterson Field Guides - Birding by Ear Eastern/Central
One of the benefits of using an audio CD as a method of learning is you can study while in the car. Most folks spend a fair amount of time on the road traveling between work and home, family visits, and vacations. What better way to spend that time than learning something you have a vested interest in.
For starting out I highly recommend the Peterson Field Guides - Birding by Ear Eastern/Central CDs by Dick Walton and Robert Lawson. This 3 CD set is inexpensive and includes vocalizations (and instruction for learning) 85 species found in the eastern United States. Even more important, this set will give you the foundation for learning future bird vocalizations not included on the CDs.
Dick demonstrates how to identify specific "vocal field marks" for individual vocalizations. Using examples, he reveals how it is not necessary to memorize the melody of some songs, but instead look for clues within the vocalization that are unique for a particular species.
One will learn that rhythm, pitch, cadence, and repeating patterns are just as important (sometimes more so) for identifying bird species as the actual melody.
The bird vocalizations are grouped by similar sounding songs. Phonetic representations, mnemonics, and descriptive characteristics are discussed where applicable. The third CD contains tests for all 85 vocalizations, grouped by habitat.
Peterson Field Guides - More Birding by Ear Eastern/Central
Another 3 CD set continuing in the style and format of the original, Peterson Field Guides - More Birding by Ear Eastern/Central by Dick Walton and Robert Lawson contains an additional 96 bird species and their vocalizations.
If you learn the vocalizations from both series, your repertoire will be 181 bird species. Not too bad for just starting out learning bird songs. Realize there will be a lot of repetition and field experience necessary to absorb this information.
One of the things I like about this series of the 3 CD set is that it contains 25 species of warbler vocalizations. In combination with the first series above, one will have learned 36 species of warblers. Just a few more and you've got the southeastern warbler species covered.
Like the original series there is a grouping of tests on the third CD organized by habitats.
Larkwire is a fun and inexpensive internet application that's considered a logical next step after Peterson's Birding by Ear CD sets. The application features a large set of quizzes (games) where you can test your bird song identification prowess. Similar sounding bird vocalizations are group together for each game. Your success for a specific group is measured by a progress bar; when you get an answer correct for the grouping the progress bar moves to the right and when you select an incorrect species the progress bar moves backwards. This results in the student spending more time (repetitions) on the bird songs they're having problems identifying. It's a great idea for a learning tool.
In the above screenshot I'm being tested on 4 of the 6 warblers in the Squeaky Wheels grouping. Note the green progress bar in the upper right corner. While the Black-and-white warbler vocalizations were fairly easy to identify, my incorrect guesses on the other three warblers frequently moved my green progress bar backwards. I won't advance to the next grouping until I learn the birds songs I'm having trouble with and finish the quiz (progress bar is all green) or I give up and manually select another grouping.
There're two styles of quizzes to choose from, the gallery version (as shown above) and the field version. The field version doesn't display the pictures or names of species and relies on the honor system for scoring.
Three different skill levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) allow the student to configure the game to their specific needs. The beginner level uses songs which have extreme sounding differences. The intermediate and advanced levels use vocalizations where the differences are subtle and more challenging to interpret.
The bird vocalizations within the application originate from the Macaulay Library (Cornell) and the Borror Lab (Ohio State). If you purchase the Master Birder songpack you'll have 344 land based birds of North America available to be quizzed on (that includes 1600 audio samples). If you're wishing to study vocalizations of waterfowl, long-legged waders, or shorebirds you'll need to use one of the other products listed. I don't consider the exclusion of the aforementioned a weakness considering the reason many folks study bird songs is to identify land species that are small, frequently hidden, and shy/skittish.
One of the things I like best about the program is the wide variety of vocalizations for a specific species. Larkwire includes regional dialects when available which makes some quizzes very challenging. As an example note the screenshot above, the Magnolia Warbler has eight different dialects available. In comparison the Peterson Birding by Ear CD series usually only included the most common vocalizations for a particular species. Speaking of warblers, Larkwire makes 45 warbler species available while the above CDs only have 35 species included.
The only issue I've had with the application was on rare occasions the quiz didn't start when I clicked the "Start" button (no audio). This was always remedied by clicking on another button then going back to the quiz and clicking the "Start" button again. It really wasn't a big deal.
Larkwire is a robust learning tool with a simple user interface for learning bird vocalizations. But the program does require an internet connection to operate. If the authors package the product as a stand-alone application for the iPad and Android tablets, they'd have a huge hit on the hands with the birders. Regardless, as is the program fits perfectly into the bird song learning paradigm right after Peterson's Birding by Ear CDs. For more information visit Larkwire.com.
Thayer Software - Guide to Birds of North America v5.0 Gold
Thayer Software - Guide to Birds of North America v5.0 Gold and Guide to Birds of North America v4.0 are complete birding references in a software format. Both include information on over 900 North American bird species, over 2,800 photos, over 700 audio songs, and over 900 range maps.
What makes the software a great learning tool and the reason for its inclusion in this section is the quizzes you can build to test yourself. One can create a "custom list" with specific birds of interest and then use this list to create various styles of quizzes to be tested on. Specifically, you can create quizzes that test yourself on bird songs.
For instance, using v5.0, I created a custom list using the following states (TN,KY,VA,NC,SC,GA,FL,AL,MS,LA,WV) and the bird family "Parulidae" as criteria. This created a list of 49 warblers found in the Southeast. I then used this list to create a multiple choice quiz on the 49 warblers, selecting only sound to be tested on (as opposed to being tested on a picture, picture and sound, video, and range map).
Realize both versions of this software do much more than what is explained above and probably warrant a broader review. Because this section is on learning bird vocalizations, only the bird song quiz aspect has been discussed.
Also note there are differences between the two software versions. Both v5.0 and v4.0 allow you to create bird song quizzes like the one mentioned above. But version 5.0 allows you to import your own bird songs (and/or photos and videos) in the event you would like to use something different than the included bird vocalizations. There are other differences as well but they are not applicable to this section.
Version 4.0 is about 1/2 the price of version 5.0.
Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region
Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes contains three CDs covering the vocalizations of 372 species found in the eastern US. Lang Elliott introduces each species by name which is then followed by various songs and calls made by the bird. Included in the set is a guide booklet listing each species along with phonetic and mnemonic representations.
Because CDs can contain only 99 tracks, 75 tracks on the CD set must contain two bird species. Most of the doubled up tracks are long-legged waders, waterfowl. some hawks, rails, and some shorebirds. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on what you're wanting to study) most perching bird tracks contain one bird selection per track.
Using this CD set, one can target individual bird families for study. You can use iTunes or other CD creation software to selectively create bird groupings on a CD for study.
For instance you could make your own CD with just the sparrow songs or maybe just the warbler songs (including the few that were missing on the "Birding by Ear" CD series).
Another idea might be making a CD that only contains birds associated with a particular location and/or habitat you plan to visit in the future.
Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region provides a comprehensive repertoire for each bird species, with most vocalizations lasting 20 to 45 seconds. Most passerine tracks contain the vocalization of one individual bird species allowing the creation of a custom bird vocalization CD possible.
By comparison most bird songs on the Peterson's - A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America (not the same as the "Birding by Ear" CDs mentioned above) by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology , last only about 15 seconds, and some closer to 10 seconds. Also the tracks on this "one CD" are composed of large groupings of birds making it is very difficult to create your own CD for study using only selected birds. In addition the Peterson's "A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America" set only contains 267 individual bird vocalizations.
Therefore, for learning bird vocalizations heard in the Southeast, I favor Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region over Peterson's - A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America.