Backyard Chirper

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Tips for learning how to identify a bird by its song

We’ve all been there. While standing in the backyard or walking through the park, you hear this mellifluously beautiful chirping and are desperate to identify the bird, but then you can’t pinpoint it. Even though its possible to go birdwatching with only your eyes, any experienced birder can tell you that a lot of birding is listening. So, whether you’re new to birding or simply never picked up how to identify a bird by its song, here are some tips to help you pick up this valuable birding skill.

What’s the point in learning bird songs?

That’s a great question with a few answers. Honing in on a bird’s sound will make it significantly easier to spot a bird with your eyes because you’ll be given a point of reference to look rather than birdwatching blindly. It’s also a good skill to pick up because it let’s you more accurately ID birds when it’s darker or you can’t recognize it by its physical attributes.

1. Go birding with your eyes and ears

When you’re first trying to learn bird sounds, the best way to start out is to go birding. Watching birds while carefully listening to their songs as they’re singing helps internalize the song better. You might already be familiar with the sounds, but have never put it with a species. Make it a goal to really watch and listen at the same time.

2. Listen to recordings

The Internet is a great thing. I say this only because there are so many fantastic resources to help you learn absolutely anything. Through the tireless efforts of ornithologists and birders, there are huge databases and recordings of nearly every bird you can imagine at your fingertips. Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology Bird Guide has 600 common bird songs and sounds, there are regional bird song guides for sale and most birding apps for your smartphone include an extensive collection of audio.

By picking out some of the common birds in your area and listening to their songs frequently, you’ll slowly start learning their sounds.

3. Don’t do it alone

With an extensive network of passionate birders around the country, there’s no reason you should try to learn bird songs without the help of someone with more experience. By simply going on a birdwalk with someone who can point out the sounds, you’ll likely pick it up quicker than trying to learn alone.

4. Target only a couple birds

You shouldn’t begin with the goal of identifying 150 bird songs immediately. Instead, start with a smaller sample size that includes common birds you’re already pretty familiar with. This makes it easier to really learn their songs intimately. Then, when you’re confident you know those songs, move on to another group of birds.

5. Make mnemonic devices for remembering the bird songs

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is a common mnemonic device that helps you remember the orders of operations in mathematics (Pop Quiz: Anyone remember what the order is?) and using this same type of method can help remember bird calls. For example, you should vocalize the bird songs yourself and then figure out what it sounds like. For example, many people think a Northern Cardinal’s song sounds like cheer-cheer-cheer, birdie birdie birdie. By putting words or patterns you’ll remember with the sounds, you’ll begin to hear those words while in the field.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.