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As spring approaches, every birder’s thoughts turn to songbird migration, which naturally brings with it the challenge of identifying bird songs.
The value of knowing songs is obvious, but learning them all is a daunting task. I’m going to suggest things to focus on when listening, and a technique that has helped me immensely when learning.
The first key to knowing the songs is simply noticing them. Next time you’re birdwatching, take a minute to close your eyes and listen. Try to distinguish the different sounds. It doesn’t matter if you can’t name each species; just learn to differentiate the voices in the chorus.
Listen to the sound quality. The voices of different species are very different. Some are buzzing, some are hissing, some are creaky. Since only a few species in any region produce a buzzing or screeching song, it makes sense to start with sound quality to narrow down the list of possibilities.
Listen for pitch changes. It can be difficult to notice subtle or rapid changes, but pitch is key to identification. Practice hearing when a sound rises (like the buzzing song of the Northern Parula) or falls (like the first buzzing notes of the song of the Black-throated Blue Warbler). It’s a simple way to identify a large number of species, and listening to the pitch will lay the groundwork for more subtle distinctions to be made as you progress through identification.
Draw pictures. What helped me the most when I was learning songs was taking notes. I did this by drawing sound diagrams. It’s easy to draw pictures: the horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is step. You can use a thin straight line to represent a whistle, a jagged zigzag line to represent a hum, and loops to represent a fluty or liquid quality. Your diagrams don’t have to be fancy or precise; they just need to help you remember the sounds.
The combination of having a visual representation and having created it with your own hand offers multiple reinforcements for learning and provides a record that you can review and recall. As I am a visual person, my diagrams have been extremely helpful to me (and still are). They allowed me to progress where listening to recordings did not.
This spring, set aside time to listen and start collecting sound diagrams. You’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come in learning bird songs.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
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