As spring approaches, every birder’s thoughts turn to the migration of songbirds, and that, naturally, brings up the challenge of identifying bird songs.
The value of knowing songs is obvious, but learning them all is a daunting task. I’m going to suggest things to focus on when listening, and a technique that helped me immeasurably when I was learning.
The first key to knowing songs is simply noticing them. The next time you are out birding, take a minute to close your eyes and listen. Try to distinguish the various sounds. It doesn’t matter if you can’t name each species; just learn to differentiate voices in the chorus.
Listen for the quality of the sound. The voices of different species are very different. Some are buzzy, some are whistled, others are squeaky. Since only a few species in any region produce a buzzy or squeaky song, starting with sound quality makes sense as a way to narrow the list of possibilities.
Listen for changes in pitch. It can be hard to notice subtle or quick variations, but pitch is a key to identification. Practice hearing when a sound rises (like the buzzy song of Northern Parula) or falls (like the first buzzy notes of the song of Black-throated Blue Warbler). This is a simple way to identify a lot of species, and listening for pitch will lay the foundation for subtler distinctions to be made as you advance in identification.
Draw pictures. What helped me most when I was learning songs was taking notes. I did this by drawing diagrams of the sounds. It’s easy to draw pictures: The horizontal axis is time, and the vertical axis is pitch. You can use a thin straight line to represent a whistle, a jagged zigzag line to represent a buzz, and loops to represent a flutelike or liquid quality. Your diagrams don’t have to be fancy or precise; they just need to help you remember the sounds.
The combination of having a visual representation and having created it with your own hand offers multiple reinforcements for learning and provides a record that you can revisit and recall. Since I am a visual person, my diagrams were extremely helpful for me (and still are). They allowed me to make progress when listening to recordings did not.
This spring, set aside time to listen, and start collecting diagrams of sounds. You’ll be amazed at how much progress you make learning bird songs.
This article was published in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
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