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Six tips for birding by ear

Two Cornell Big Day birders and a tour leader tell how they learned to identify birds by ear — and you can too!
By Jennifer Horton | Published: 4/20/2012

BRD-A0612-500I arrived at Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary a few minutes late, having hit the snooze button one too many times on an early June morning. The workshop, a survey of bird song hosted by a local tour company, had already started.

What I saw as I approached the assembly point made me question why I had signed up: birders standing in a circle, heads to the ground, wearing blindfolds, listening.

I reluctantly donned one of my own — blindfolds, really? — and joined the group. The Asheville, North Carolina, air was humid and silent. I considered ripping the bandana from my eyes — it is called bird watching, after all — but resisted.

My interest in bird song had begun after an outing with the local birding club. As I scrambled to focus my binoculars on every flash of movement, the more experienced members of the group walked along casually, binoculars at their sides, calling out bird IDs left and right. I realized then that there’s more to watching birds than, well, watching. I had paid for optics and spent time studying field guides but invested too little in my other senses.

Now I know even a basic understanding of vocalizations can expand your knowledge and awareness of the bird life in your area. It’s especially helpful for picking out reclusive birds like Red-eyed Vireo and Eastern Towhee; fast ones, like swifts and swallows; and for those instances when you don’t have time to slow down, don’t have your binoculars, or are birding in dense habitat. It’s also nearly essential for distinguishing birds that look almost identical — American and Fish Crows, for example.

Countless attempts have been made to describe bird songs and calls — musical notations, sonograms, comparative descriptions, and mnemonics — yet birding by ear remains as hard to define as it is valuable. It takes patience, practice, and years of work to nail down, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. By following the six tips below, you can strengthen your listening skills and take your hobby to a new level.

1. Learn how to listen
After a few excruciating moments of blindfolded silence, bird sounds started to reverberate off Beaver Lake: a sweet succession of whistles, a plaintive call, a harsh jeer. Before asking us to put names with the sounds, Simon Thompson, leader of the workshop, asked us to focus on one at a time and describe what we were hearing. “Put words with it if you like, or describe it in some other way that makes sense to you. Does it sound like a rusty gate? Is it sweet? Repetitive?”

Thompson’s approach was a good one, as the key to successful ear birding is learning how to listen. Just as we have to train our eyes to focus on the shape of a bird’s body, the curve of its bill, and the length of its tail, we have to learn to differentiate between a song or call’s tone, pitch, and pattern.

Is it high and sweet like a titmouse? Shrill like a Sharp-shinned Hawk? Or nasal like a White-breasted Nuthatch? Does it rise in pitch or does it fall? Does it come in groups of two or four? Can you discern a space between each new bout? By asking yourself these questions, you’ll begin to understand what it is that makes a cardinal’s birdy, birdy, birdy different from a titmouse’s peter, peter, peter, and the cardinal’s chip distinguishable from the Brown Thrasher’s chack!

If you’re practically tone deaf, like yours truly, don’t dismay; this is something you already do every day. When the song “Like a Rolling Stone” comes on the radio, for instance, you know automatically that the slightly nasal, raspy sound belongs to Bob Dylan. You probably aren’t consciously identifying what aspects of the music tip you off; certain artists just have characteristic sounds. With practice, you’ll realize that the same is true with bird vocalizations.

2. Master the songs of local birds
Once you’ve learned how to listen and what to listen for, the next question is where to begin. The thought of learning every single call and song in every single bird’s repertoire can seem daunting even for the most musically gifted.

So start small. Learning bird songs is like learning a language: Before you can speak, you have to develop your basic vocabulary. In bird speak, this means picking out several birds in your area and learning them well. “Once you have that solid grounding, it’s pretty transferable,” says eBird project leader and Bird­Watchingmagazine contributor Marshall Iliff.

He proved that on a recent trip to Vietnam. Despite having no knowledge of the country’s birds, he was able to learn the songs and calls of the local species after only a couple days by associating them with birds he was already familiar with. It also helps that many birds within the same family have similar-sounding songs, so even if you can’t pinpoint the exact bird, you can at least narrow it down to the correct family.

If you’re still not sure where to begin, Iliff recommends starting with bird sounds you already know. “Whether or not a birder realizes it, everyone knows some already — Mourning Dove, Canada Goose, ducks, crows.”

Like learning root words in English and then adding suffixes, prefixes, and other flourishes as you go along, your knowledge of local bird songs becomes the base you build upon, so that when you learn new songs, you have a solid reference point. Thompson advocates this approach as well. For him, it’s the easiest way to learn a new song. By relating a new sound to a bird he already knows, he can establish a new association in his brain. Iliff, for example, describes a Scarlet Tanager as sounding like a robin with a sore throat, while Thompson says a Magnolia Warbler sounds like a Hooded Warbler not finishing its song properly.

3. Associate songs with something memorable
We’ve all heard the catchy phrases people come up with to describe bird songs. Some of them, like “Drink your tea!” for Eastern Towhee, are obvious. Others are less so. The key is to find something memorable to associate with what you’re hearing. Thompson’s approach is a good starting point. Many people like to use words, but when White-throated Sparrow sings, what sounds like “Old Sam Peabody Peabody” to one person may sound like “Oh sweet Canada Canada” to another.

The trick is to find something that resonates with you. My personal favorite is Thompson’s description of a Red-breasted Nuthatch — “like a miniature forklift backing up.” A few that stood out for Iliff, who credits mnemonics as being helpful when he was starting out: “Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle” for Carolina Wren, the aforementioned “Drink your tea!” for Eastern Towhee, and two stones rubbing together for Yellow Rail.

4. Track down birds on your own
When it comes to building your ID toolbox, all the birders I spoke with agree there is no substitute for going out and tracking down birds on your own. Thompson, who’s been birding since he was eight and is reluctant to give away his age, admits bird-song CDs didn’t even exist when he was starting out. “I did have a couple of 45s, and I’d listen to those, but mostly I just did an awful lot of exploring by myself.”

Iliff also recommends the solo method. “Hearing a bird, tracking it down, figuring it out on your own — that’s where the best ear birders are made,” he asserts. He’s tried listening to songs and calls on CDs and other methods, but nothing really worked until he got out in the field and experienced it for himself. “Having to track down the bird by myself — seeing it in the tree, in its habitat — the entire experience helps to cement the memory in my brain.”

For Jessie Barry, that hunt is a big part of the thrill. She’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s lead developer of an online bird-identification tool called Merlin. Like Iliff and Thompson, she can now easily identify most any song she hears without a second thought, but she still gets a charge out of hearing a new song and chasing it to its source. “When you hear something different, that’s when it’s really exciting,” she says. “That’s when you learn something. You get better, and you may find a rare bird, which is something I really enjoy.”

Barry knows well the value of sound in identifying birds. In Texas in April 2011, she, Iliff, and four other members of Cornell’s all-star Team Sapsucker found 264 bird species in 24 hours, setting a new Big Day record for North America. She estimates that at least half of the birds were identified by ear.

5. Go out with more ­experienced ear birders
After working on your own, there will come a time when you’ll need a boost. This is when it can be helpful to attach yourself to ear birders who are more experienced than you. Doing this helped Iliff realize how much more he could learn. He recommends not being afraid to ask questions.

“You’ll definitely reach a plateau doing it on your own,” he says, “and you may not even realize how high you can raise the bar until you go out with some birders who are better than you. You’ll realize that they don’t ignore the birds flying overhead, and that they are able to tell Grasshopper Sparrow from Savannah Sparrow consistently.”

6. Learn the difference between songs and calls
Finally, while it may seem obvious, an important but often neglected piece to the birding-by-ear puzzle is understanding the difference between songs and calls. Birds issue calls year-round to communicate a variety of information. Songs tend to be given primarily in the spring, and usually by males, to defend territory and attract mates. As such, songs are fre­quently more complex, longer, and more beautiful-sounding than the short, irregular notes of calls. Songs are also usually repeated in a regular pattern. Their length and complexity often make them easier to learn than calls, says Barry, because they give you more to latch on to.

Simply asking if a sound is a song or a call can go a long way, Iliff says. “If you learn a song and a call for each bird,” he explains, “that gives you twice as much of a starting point for learning other birds. So if you can at least start to break the sounds into those two categories, it can be really helpful.”

Rely on your ears
Because of the profusion of bird songs in the spring and early summer, skilled birders like Iliff, Barry, and Thompson often find binoculars unnecessary. Iliff estimates that 80 to 95 percent of his identifications during breeding season are based on sound. He simply walks along, barely looking up. Tour leader Thompson, who relies on his good ears to lead patrons to life birds, admits to doing “practically everything by listening.” The practice has become automatic for Barry, too. “In the spring, I honestly am not picking up my binoculars very often,” she admits.

The excitement in her voice grows as she explains the dramatic effect ear birding can have. “There’s nothing that can change your birding more than starting to get a handle on songs and calls,” she says, “because you find so many more birds. Especially during migration, there are thousands of songbirds flying over every night, and it’s kind of mysterious because we can’t see it — but we can listen to it.”

Jennifer Horton is a freelance writer who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. She also wrote about products that prevent bird-window collisions.