How to Listen to Bird Songs: Birding by Ear to Increase Your Bird Watching Pleasure

Although there is a lot to be said for identifying birds by their color, shape, size or behavior, learning birds’ songs gives you an in-depth understanding for the bird. It gives you a calming peace while you walk through woods or by a lake, because listening forces you into complete silence. Knowing exactly what birds fill the trees gives you an amazing feeling of satisfaction.

Do Your Research

Just like when learning to identify birds by sight, it is important to start with research. Make sure you know what birds you’re likely to hear in your area. Note the time of year and the habitat where you live. It is easiest to learn songs during the spring because that is when birds are most active and vocal; male birds sing during the breeding season to attract a mate and to defend their precious territory from possible invaders.

Make a short list of the birds you want to learn first. Look in your bird guide to see whether those birds breed in your area. Start with the birds at your feeder—chickadees, house sparrows, cardinals and doves. Once you know songs of some common birds, you can start comparing and contrasting new songs.

Benefits of Listening to Audio Recordings

Listen to the songs of your chosen birds before you even step outside. Websites like make great resouces for your pre-birding research. Another good trick is to buy a CD of bird songs and upload it to your mp3 player so you can take it outside as a backup. The Stokes Field Guide is one of the best resources if you bird in North America.

Passerines, better known as song birds, are the species you should focus on. Learning passerine songs opens up a new and challenging world of bird watching; some species look so much alike that song is the only way to distinguish them. Most importantly, songbirds are the reason we love to listen to birds—they are the ones with the beautiful voices.


Songs vs. Calls

Bird communication is made up of two parts: songs and calls. A bird song is a series of notes organized into a repeatable pattern. A call is a quick, sharp sound used to communicate within a group of birds, to warn of approaching danger, or to scare away an intruder. Focus on learning the songs, and the calls will come with time.

You may notice that your guide writes out what a bird’s song may sound like. Try to find your own associations and rhymes to learn the songs. Some well-known rhymes may stick in your head like the Yellow Warbler’s “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m oh so sweeeet!” of the Carolina Wren’s “Tea kettle, tea kettle.” But, if a bird sounds like a tire squeal or quarrelling neighbors, that association will be sure to help you.

After you have researched, get outside. Songs will take more time and patience than learning by sight, but the reward is greater. Make sure you watch birds sing as much as possible, because nothing cements a song in your brain like simultaneously seeing and hearing. Practice, practice, practice, and you will turn from a bird watcher into a bird listener.