Birding by Ear

Birding By Ear — How to Identify Birds by Their Sounds

Learn to Identify Birds by Their Songs and Calls

Do you enjoy listening to bird songs and calls? Birding by ear (listening to, and identifying birds by their songs and calls) is a great way to locate birds, and often the easiest way to identify birds. And bird song identification adds to our overall enjoyment of birding.

I think it’s delightful to wake up to bird songs in the early morning and to know what they are (during spring and early summer we often hear cardinals and robins starting around 4:30 a.m.). It’s satisfying to recognize the enchanting breezy, down-ward spiraling song of the veery out in the woods, and it’s enjoyable knowing that the friendly chirping outside the window on a cold, sunny winter day is from house sparrows congregating together.

It’s also exciting to hear unfamiliar bird songs. You may not always be able to identify the bird visually, but you may be able to figure it out from listening to birding by ear CDs, apps, or birding websites. My husband and I did just that a couple years ago, out on a hike near our local river. We heard a few warbling-type birds that weren’t familiar to us, and we were able to finally see a couple, make an “educated guess” using my old, dog-eared copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, and we confirmed it by listening to recorded bird songs online. We correctly identified the birds as Warbling Vireos.  (More recently we have started relying more on birding apps to confirm what we see and here).

It’s easy to start learning the basics of birding by ear!

Throughout this page I’ve included a few samples of bird songs and bird calls of some of the birds shown or mentioned here.

Listen to the song of the Northern Cardinal
Photo at top of page is of a Northern Cardinal, from Wikipedia, and in the public domain.

How to Identify Bird Calls – Begin Birding By Ear

Start By Learning Songs of Your Backyard Birds

To start learning bird songs, it’s easiest to begin with what you see in your own backyard and neighborhood. First, learn to visually identify a few of the most common birds in your area. You may want to buy a beginning Field Guide to Birds to help you learn what you’re most likely to see in your area.

Or if you live in the Eastern or Central part of the United States, browse through the photos on the two sites listed below, and see which are familiar to you:

Then you need to take the time to observe and listen to the birds in your area. Be patient! Can you tell which birds are making which sounds? Do you notice that birds may have more than one sound? Usually birds have a particular song, and one or more calls. There may also be some variation in their songs and calls.

Singing American Robin

Singing American Robin
Photo by John Benson, on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Most people in the United States are familiar with the American Robin, so that’s an excellent bird to begin your birding by ear practice! Listen to the robin song, and compare it to the robin squawking call. Are these sounds familiar to you?

Excellent Birding by Ear CDs

Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central (Peterson Field Guides)Birding by Ear: Western North America (Peterson Field Guides)Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region

Why Learn Bird Songs and Bird Calls?

Besides the obvious enjoyment and satisfaction of knowing what bird you’re listening to, learning bird songs and calls is an extra tool to help you identify birds.

Many birds can be identified from their unique colors, shapes, or sizes. But sometimes you might not be able to visually locate the bird, or perhaps the visual characteristics aren’t enough for you to make a positive identification. The bird song or call will give you a better chance of identifying the bird. And being able to identify some bird songs will alert you to when certain birds are in the area. You’ll become more attuned to what common birds are in your area, and you’ll recognize when a less common bird appears.

Overall, learning to identify bird songs and calls gives us another way to appreciate what nature has to offer us, and our lives are richer because of it.

The wood thrush, pictured here, and the veery, mentioned earlier, look similar. Both birds are in the thrush family (as is the American Robin). Expert birders can visually tell the differences between the two, but that may be difficult for many of us amateur birders. It’s also difficult to find these birds without hearing them first. The songs of these two birds have similarities, but you can also hear the differences.

  • Listen to the song of the Wood thrush. You’ll hear many other lovely woodland bird songs too in this video.
  • Listen to the song of the Veery.

Or just check out the excellent videos of these two birds singing.



Find Help in Learning Bird Calls and Sounds

Beyond learning the common bird songs from my mother when I was young, I didn’t easily learn other bird songs and calls until I took an ornithology (study of birds) class in college that included many hours of field identification practice. The professor and the teaching assistant were experts at identifying birds by sight, sound, and habitat.

You might be able to find a bird identification class offered in your community. Check out Community Recreation and Education classes, or workshops offered through local nature centers or parks.

Or maybe you have a friend who’s an avid birder and could take you out to different areas to introduce you to a variety of birds. We’ve had birder friends who’ve let us “tag along” with them occasionally. It’s amazing how many birds they could locate using visual and auditory clues. The bird songs helped them locate the general area of the bird, and sometimes we could then visually spot the bird.

You also might be able to find a local chapter of the Audubon Society or a similar association that leads birding outings and other bird identification programs. You’ll find many experienced birders in groups like this who are very happy to share their knowledge of bird songs and calls!

Listen to Red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk
Photo by mikebaird, CC BY 2.0

 Birding by Ear Mnemonics

A “mnemonic device” is a memory aid to help you remember something. When you’re learning to bird by ear and referring to bird identification guides and bird sound recordings, you’ll come across many mnemonic phrases that will help you remember certain bird calls.

One of the most familiar mnemonic phrases is for the Black-capped Chickadee which is found throughout a good portion of the northern half of the United States and the lower half of Canada — “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee” (but the Black-Capped Chickadee also has a sweet spring mating song, “pee wee”, not to be confused with the Eastern Wood Pewee, which sounds more like a “pee-a-wee, pee-ur”).

Listen here to a few bird songs and calls that have good mnemonic phrases:


Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee


Use Birding Apps

Field Guides on Your Smart Phone or Pad

My husband has started using birding field guide apps on his iPhone, and I use one on my iPad Mini. A benefit of these apps is that we can play the sample bird sounds while we’re out birding to confirm what we’re seeing or hearing, but they’re also a good way to learn bird songs and calls before we go out in the field.

These have worked best when we’ve had an idea of what the bird might be, and we can go to the entry for that bird or similar ones in the app and compare sounds. For instance, recently we heard a bird that sounded similar to a Red-Eyed Vireo, but it a hoarser, slower song. We browsed through the vireo songs on the birding app on my husband’s iPhone and were able to confirm it as a Yellow-Throated Vireo (and finally we were able to actually see this small, yellowish woodland bird!).

There are a number of excellent field guide to bird apps for phones and tablets.

Apple iOS Apps

  • The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America is my husband’s favorite choice.
  • iBird Pro Guide to Birds is one of the best-rated and most used bird field guide apps.
  • Peterson Birds — A Field Guide to Birds of North America – a well-respected source.

Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North AmericaiBird Pro Guide to Birds – Mitch Waite GroupPeterson – Field Guide to Birds of North America

Android Birding Apps on Amazon

Android also has a number of good birding apps that you can find on Amazon that correspond to the iPhone and iPad apps.

Sibley Birds of North America – eGuideiBird Pro 2 Guide to Birds for AndroidPeterson – Field Guide to Birds of North America



Quiz Yourself on Bird Calls

Take the eNature Bird Call Challenge

Once you’ve started to learn a few bird calls and sounds, you can quiz yourself with the eNature Bird Call Challenge.

Type in your zipcode, and choose “Songbirds only” or “All birds” to take a 5 question audio quiz on birds in your area. The quiz is different each time you take it. To challenge yourself more, choose another area (zipcode). This is a great way to learn what different birds in your area sound like!


Have Fun!

Learning bird calls and songs can take time but it is a very fun endeavor!  I hope you can get outside often to practice listening to the birds in your area.