One thing I have heard many birders say over and over again is that they have a hard time with bird songs. I think the most common complaint is that it's hard to remember what song goes with with what bird. Never mind keeping all the little call notes straight (how can a "chip" sound possibly be made so many different ways?!) And songs of first year males versus more mature males? Forget about it!
I'm certainly no pro birder, and I've got a LOT to learn yet when it comes to bird song, but I feel pretty confident in my ability to ID quite a lot of birds just by ear, and I like to think I pick it up pretty fast. So I dedicate this post to all my fellow birders, pro and amateur alike, and give you my tips for birding by ear, based on my own personal experience. Here we go, in no particular order.
-Don't think of it as bird song - think of it as the voices of your friends.
As corny as it may sound, I do think of the birds as my friends, and I tend to greet them as I come across them in the yard and in the woods. I feel like when I hear the birds, I know just who among my friends is around at a given moment. This past weekend at the Wilds, trip leader Jim McCormac brought up a very good point that I have often thought of myself: Think of the birds songs the way you would your friend's and family's voices - how many people do you know just by the sound of their voice? You can know the birds the same way.
-Create whatever mnemonics you need to make a connection in your head.
Lots of folks hear the Carolina Wren saying "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle", but sometimes that song sounds different to me, like "Cheater, cheater, cheater" or "Secret, secret, secret" (this morning it sounded like "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger"!). The Acadian Flycather is typically coined as saying "Peet-ZA!", but it doesn't sound that way to me at all. To me it sounds more like an emphatic version of what the Pheoebe says - a very short, staccato version of "fe-BE!" Use whatever works for YOU to help you remember.
-Start small, start easy.
Start with what you know. I'm sure we all have backyard birds that we would know the sound of blindfolded. Start with those guys. Go beyond the basic "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" of the Carolina Wren, and start listening for other sounds they make. Like the sweet little "Cheer!" call, or their raucous scolding sounds, among others. This leads into my next point...
-Spend as much time with the birds as you can.
Whether it's in your own backyard, your favorite park, at the beach/ocean/lake, along a bike trail, in the meadow... Whatever habitat is most accessible for you, go there as much as you can and spend time with the birds. Watch them, listen to them. I am fortunate enough to live on a heavily wooded plot of land, so we get lots of woodland birds. Due to their constant presence I have been able to learn subtle nuances of birds like the Eastern Phoebe (song, chip, and a funny little trill call), the scolding calls of Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren, and many variations of the Eastern Towhee's song ("Drink your teeeeea!", "tow-HEE," "che-WINK," and "WE-cher").
-Make a visual connection if you can.
I know this one can be difficult, especially with skulkers like Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and countless warblers. However, seeing the bird sing can help make the link your mind that will cement the song and/or call in your brain for good. It's what helped me identify a string of "Cheer!" calls with the Carolina Wren, and the fantastically short little bubble-burst of song from the Henslow's Sparrow.
-Spend time with other birders.
Go on bird walks and bird field trips. I've never been on a bird walk that didn't address bird song. You'll be amazed at what you'll learn when you're among others who love birds just as much as you do. Everyone always wants to share anecdotes about their birds, and you just might pick up a vital clue to a mystery bird from a fellow birder!
-Try to learn at least one song on your own.
This is another powerful tool in birding by ear. The first song that I really learned on my own was that of the Wood Thrush. It was the second spring after I had really gotten into birding when I heard those ethereal flute-like notes and said "Holy cow, what is that?! I've got to find out!" It took several days of sifting through sound files on Cornell's site, but I finally stumbled across it. It was particularly tricky because I had no visual sighting of the bird, but also all the more rewarding. That was my "spark bird" of bird song, and since then I've made it a goal to learn more and more songs! (My thanks to Kelly for reminding me of this tip in relating how she learned the song of the Red-eyed Vireo!)
-Find auditory resources.
From BirdJam to the Cornell Lab's website to book/CD combos, there's lots of good auditory resources out there to help you learn bird songs. Use them often. You'll be delighted when you finally hear a song in the field that you remember from the CD you listened to last night.
-Don't try to learn all the birds at once.
I know there's a lot of birds singing out there all at once, and it can be a bit overwhelming. Like being in a room full of people, all the voices kind of blend into a dull roar. Instead of trying to know them all, pick one or two voices out of the crowd and concentrate on them. Some will be fairly easy and you'll be able to move on to someone new. Others will take more work. That's okay.
-Reinforce what you do know.
There's nothing wrong with calling out the bird's name when you hear it sing. That will only help you remember it better. I finally learned the Acadian Flycatcher's song at the Wilds, and now I can definitively say that we have those drab little birds in our woods. But since the song is still relatively new to me, I call out "Acadian Flycatcher" every time I hear it to help reinforce the connection (perhaps to my hubbie's dismay).
-Don't be afraid to be wrong.
Sometimes you may get a song or call note associated to a bird it doesn't belong to. There are so many birds that are described as sounding like a "Robin with a sore throat" that they are bound to get mixed up in your head, especially when you're first starting out. Don't worry if you get it wrong sometimes! I still have trouble distinguishing between a Flicker's "kek-kek-kek" call and that of a Pileated Woodpecker. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are very tricky for me, too. And this weekend at the Wilds I heard a deep "wheep" sound in the woods that I thought was the Great-crested Flycatcher, but sometimes it was actually Yellow-breasted Chat or White-eyed Vireo.
-Let go, and have fun.
While I think we would all like to improve our birding skills, whether it be visual ID or auditory ID (or nest ID, feather ID, etc.), sometimes you've just got to let all of that go and enjoy the birds for what they are, whether you know them or not. This will add greater depth and appreciation to a hobby that is already rewarding to you.
It's so hard for me to believe that I've gone through so many years of my life not REALLY hearing the birds and not REALLY seeing them until I suddenly opened my eyes and ears to them when I "got into" birding seriously 4 years ago. As I mentioned at the top of this post, there's still a lot for me to learn about birds and bird songs, but it's an education I look forward to continuing. I hope you found this to be helpful.
If any of you have any other birding by ear suggestions, or stories about how you've learned bird songs, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!