As with different instruments in music, it takes practice to identify each individual sound.
When you become familiar with music over years of listening or playing, you can quickly recognize which instruments contribute to specific parts of a given song’s melody. For untrained ears, a springtime dawn chorus of birds can sound like musical chaos, difficult to distinguish between different bird calls.
It can be much easier to memorize bird species’ appearances rather than their songs. As with different instruments in music, it takes practice to identify each individual sound.
Even then, birds’ early morning concerts in spring can remain a challenge due to the variety of species involved.
In the film The Big Year, extreme birders in the United States compete to see who can spot the most bird species. The character Brad, an expert on bird calls, listens to field recordings like his work colleagues would listen to popular music. Brad’s penchant for birding by ear benefits his Big Year competition because he can first recognize birds by their sounds before spotting them and adding them to his tally.
You do need to be discerning when identifying birds based on the sounds they make. When it comes to distinguishing similar bird species—like the Common Chiffchaff and the Willow Warbler, it’s useful to know them by their voices.
Some bird species have regional accents, or dialects—geographical variations in their song. The Blackcap in southern Germany ends its song differently from other Blackcaps in Europe. In the United States, the Mountain Chickadee’s song varies by mountain range. The best way to study bird sounds is by listening to learn each species individually. Apps like Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID and those produced by national nature conservation organizations provide audio files in their species profiles. Some apps can even identify birds as you’re listening to them. These apps have their limitations when you’re trying to learn to bird by ear, however. Apps can only make suggestions regarding the birds you’re hearing, especially when there are background noises involved. And if you’re relying on books or CDs on bird calls, the selection to choose from is nothing short of monumental.
Mnemonics are useful for remembering individual species’ voices. You can find books on transcribed bird voices spelled out into readable onomatopoeias. It’s often more effective to make your own notes and associations to recall when you encounter birds singing around you.
The cuckoo is rather easy for everyone because it sings its own name. The Common Buzzard sounds to some like a lamenting cat, for others like the neighbor’s baby when it gets hungry. The Reed-Warbler or the Marsh Warbler seems to rail. Note your own comparisons and retrieve them when you’re identifying the bird out in nature.
Why and when do birds sing?
A new challenge arises as soon as you begin listening to birds more seriously. Birds vocalize for various reasons; because of that, they also sometimes sound different depending on the situation. Typically, the male sings to attract a mate or to communicate with others from their species. Tawny Owls are beautiful exceptions: Pairs will sing a duet. Bird songs are easiest to learn as they are longer, melodic, and often have repetitive elements.
Bird calls are usually different from songs. They serve to alert other adults or a bird’s own brood in the nest about threats. Some birds call when they start their flight to signal their movements or to keep the flock together. And as dogs mark their territory with urine, birds do this vocally. Some birds even use sounds to trick others. They move brashly, sing loudly, and create the impression of other species that also inhabit the territory.
Some species are excellent voice imitators. In Europe, this is mainly the Common Starling and the Marsh Warbler. They cheat with other species by mimicking other birds’ voices. The Bowerbird in Australia even manages to imitate cats and to expel enemies using this deceptive strategy. However, these species are exceptions.
In terms of birding by ear, the sounds of the cuckoo are indeed the simplest and probably most widely recognized in Europe. But the Common Chiffchaff also lives up to its name, as its voice may be interpreted as a kind of easily recognizable chiff-chaff sound. Meanwhile, the similar-looking Willow Warbler sings much more consistently and vividly.
The Golden Oriole’s sounds may seem tropical, but it is rather common in central and southern Europe. Although it’s often difficult to see the bird in the woods, it is usually easy to hear it. With its voice more like an exotic house in a zoo, this species stands out among the singing birds we usually hear close to towns and cities. In urban settings, Common Swifts are often the birds we hear best because of their loud voices. They usually move in flocks, impressing us with their flight maneuvers as they pass directly in front of houses and balconies. Their sounds play a part in a city’s evening cacophony. Also, the Great Tit cannot be missed in gardens and cities with its loud di-di-di-di, while the Eurasian Magpie’s voice matches its larger body and belongs to the familiar sounds of parks. Blackbirds’ beautiful, varying song is a familiar sound for many listeners.
Marsh Warblers and Reed Warblers have rather demanding voices that may remind you of an excursion to a lake. The European Greenfinch may be recognized by its consistently high pitch.
Even when it’s well-hidden in the canopy, you can hear it very clearly. The Blackcap sings an extra trill, its voice among the most beautiful of bird sounds. Among the raptors, the Eurasian Buzzard is not only the most common species, but is one of the easiest to recognize with its calls like a moaning cat or hungry baby.
It’s wise to begin learning to ID birds by ear by paying attention to the sounds of birds you encounter most frequently. Learn their songs and calls, focusing on the tone, pace, rhythm, pitch, and phrases—and expect variation. Try to learn their “voice,” so that you can recognize it as you would your best friend’s, regardless of what they actually say. This will give you a basis of comparison for learning the sounds of birds you encounter less frequently.
Whatever comparisons you draw, mnemonics are a userful, personal tool for memorizing bird voices. No other person has to understand them; your mnemonics are crafted to help you with memorizing bird sounds. Everyone’s experience is unique within their own soundscape and environment, including how they relate to bird voices. In this sense: rock and chirp on! Enjoy the bird concert as you begin recognizing single voices before you might see them! And who knows, perhaps you will imitate different birds’ voices yourself in the future.