Monday, May 07, 2007

Learning Bird Songs

From April to June each year our parks and woodlands are filled with song as migrating birds return and breeding birds set up territories and look for mates. Songs and calls can be a valuable key for identification and add to our appreciation of birds. From time to time people ask me about ways to learn bird songs. Here are five suggestions.

1. Listen to the songs of birds you can identify

The best way to start with bird songs is to learn the songs of the common local species. For Washington, this means birds such as robins, cardinals, Carolina and house wrens, chickadees, titmice, and song sparrows. (In your own area, the common species may be different.) Doing this simply involves watching and listening during bird walks. Try to watch singing birds that you can identify by sight. As you learn songs, try to guess the identity of a singing bird before finding it with binoculars. Even if you are using resources listed below, your own observation and experience is still the key to learning songs.

2. Birding by Ear series

One difficulty of learning bird songs is that many sound similar to each other. As with visual identification, there are characteristic qualities that one can use to distinguish similar songs. The best resource that I have come across is the Birding by Ear series by Dick Walton and Robert Lawson. Birding by Ear and More Birding by Ear cover eastern and central birds; there is also a version for western birds.

3. Bird song CDs

The Birding by Ear CDs cover a limited selection of songs. More comprehensive guides are available in CD form, such as the Peterson and Stokes guides. (Those links cover eastern birds; Stokes and Peterson also have western versions.) Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody? covers 189 eastern and central species on a single CD. A difference between this and the others is that the narrator names the species after the sound plays so that it can be used for randomized self-quizzes.

4. Online audio guides

Most online field guides include links to recordings of bird songs. Cornell's All About Birds and the Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter both have audio files. In addition, there are other online compilations of bird songs. Two of my favorites are NY State Bird Songs and North American Bird Sounds. An even better resource is Cornell's Macaulay Library, which has placed much of its sound and video catalog online. At that site you can listen to multiple recordings of any bird species that you want to learn in depth. The Owl Pages has recordings for most owl species.

5. Identification games

Some websites offer identification games that include song matching. Two examples are Virtual Birder's Spring Warbler Tune-up (eastern species) and Patuxent's Bird Quiz. Ecology Explorers has a basic Flash-based game that seems to be geared to western species. Multimedia CD-ROM field guides may also feature song quizzes as part of the software.

Posted as a contribution to the Group Writing Project. Mike and Trevor also posted contributions.