The Blessing of Birding by Ear: Tips for Identifying Birds by their Song

“More than any other kind of wildlife, birds have an almost magical hold on the human imagination:

“They are beautiful, vibrantly alive, and everywhere to be seen. They open our eyes to the world of nature. They enrich our spirits with their color, their music, and their wondrous gift of flight.”

The editors of the Book of North American Birds, one of many field guides lining my shelves, express well what’s in my heart this morning as I reach for joy in hard times. Through the open window by my desk, the lilts and squawks of backyard birds remind me of the combat and courtship going on in the lilacs and crabapples outside and my heart is lifted to recall that “not a sparrow falls without your Father knowing.”

White-crowned Sparrow

Last summer NPR’s Shortwave podcast noted that the lockdown of 2020 had many more people interested in the birds outside their windows. It cheers me to know it, as I hope those birds cheered many a lockdowned heart.

The American robin song is even known for its lighthearted reminder, often rendered as “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.”

We can’t always get a look at the birds we can hear, so getting to know birds by song opens a deeper dimension of discovery and delight.

Binoculars and field guides were familiar to me as far back as I can recall; I’m blessed to have had parents who loved the outdoors. But it wasn’t until after my brothers and I left our parents with an empty nest that our mother took a serious interest in birdwatching. Mom carried binoculars everywhere and carefully listed her finds in the back pages of her expanding collection of field guides.

Then she discovered Peterson’s Birding by Ear, a booklet and set of cassette tapes identifying birds by their song, and the whole family, auditory by nature, got in the game. (Legendary ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson is said to have seen about 4,500 bird species in his life, a figure I acquired from Anglican theologian John Stott’s book The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird-Watcher. Stott referred to his own bird-musings as orni-theology.)

Learning bird songs by English renderings (as in the “Quick! Three beers!” of the olive-sided flycatcher or the “Who cooks for you?” of the barred owl) made Birding by Ear a blast.

It’s because of my mother that today, without looking out my window, I can tell you that red-winged blackbirds (conkeree!), house sparrows (chip! chip! chirrup!) and cackling starlings are just outside it at the moment.

Mom’s cassette tapes were published before the internet and are now out of print (CD’s of some editions are still available), but in the years since my mother wore hers out I’ve gathered my own supports for connecting specific birds with their song.

It’s pleasant enough just to hear a bird sing. But as Dana Goia says in “Words,” one of my very favorite poems:

To name is to know and to remember.


Start with a regional field guide.

Although some birds live in a wide range across the US and can be found pretty much any North American field guide, you’ll do much better by purchasing one or more guides specific to your region. Same goes for field guides to songbirds, garden birds or backyard birds. They’re all wonderful and can expand your knowledge, but you’re more likely to enjoy your birding journey at the outset by narrowing your field guide’s offerings to birds you’re likely to encounter where you live.

Since I live in Colorado I’ve been relying on Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Western Birds and am now pining for its 2020 edition. I also use the western region edition of The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds and find that the combination of the two–one with drawings and the other with photographs–is a helpful combination. Sibley Birds West is still on my wish list.

I keep an old copy of Stan Tiekla’s Birds of Colorado and a self-published guide to local birding hotspots, no longer in print, in my husband’s truck.

Browsing a field guide is the perfect preparation for identifying the birds in your area and helps you know what section to turn to when you see a bird that looks familiar. My local guide has very few pictures but thanks to the internet I can google photos of the birds it lists in the habitats near me and look for them expectantly.

Learn the songs particular to the birds in your area.

Birding by Ear was great for catching on to bird song, and Stokes’ audio Field Guide to Birdsongs is similar and available in eastern and western editions not only on CD, but on on Audible as well.

Still, Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, though it isn’t region specific, is a bit more user-friendly because it allows me to browse its illustrations and then select a recording of the song specific to a particular species without having to scan through audiofiles without photographs.

My mom would have killed for the drill-down access we now have at our fingertips in the internet. Once you know the birds common to your region, all you have to do search by pairing their name with “song” and you’ll likely end up at a Youtube recording, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website or Bird Note. You can even download the Cornell Lab’s bird identification app Merlin to your phone and add a library specific to your region with both photo and sound.

A few months ago I was delighted with the number of white-crowned sparrows we were seeing at our backyard feeder, but I couldn’t figure out from all the feeder chatter what they sounded like until I did just that. I ended up at this Bird Note file, which not only allowed me to hear its song, but to catch the English vocalization “see me, pretty pretty me,” which has stayed with me ever since, allowing me to recognize the presence of white-crowned sparrows even when I can’t see who is singing in the neighborhood trees.

Choose a sit spot and discover what the robin knows.

I learned how much more there was to know a couple of years ago when my brother Dan (whose knowledge of the natural world far surpasses mine) introduced me to Jon Young’s book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.

Young, “a lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist,” moved me from mere song recognition to wanting to recognize and understand bird behavior and what he calls “deep bird language,” the array of vocalizations that may signify alarm, agitation, calling a mate to a great food find and more.

In What the Robin Knows Young distills a lifetime of experience not only in the wild, but in guiding others to understand it. It is not a book to be read quickly, but to be put down often to make time to watch and listen day by day. Young recommends that we choose a “sit spot” to visit regularly and simply watch and listen. A back yard or park bench is just fine, he says.

The world revealed by doing so becomes far more predictable as we begin to see which species are present at which time of day, which particular birds see this spot as their territory and to notice what they do when danger enters or rival birds show up. Young chose the robin as the book’s focal point because robins are very expressive about territory and are easily seen.

Orni-theologian Stott dedicates a chapter titled “space” in The Birds Our Teachers to the robin’s territorial behavior as well.

What the Robin Knows is supported with the online audio files at Bird Language, but I found it easier to read on the Kindle Fire edition, which links directly to the files you need right by the text where the example he’s discussing appears.

Step by step, What the Robin Knows is helping me tune in to the natural world not only when I’m walking around a lake or sitting by a campsite, but as I cross a parking lot or sit by the open window at my desk.

Training ourselves to listen “in the fullest possible way,” he writes, “the chattering, texting, emailing, twittering mind will eventually quiet down and almost silence itself.” Young is convinced that “the birds are the best mentors in the natural world for bringing us to it.”

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes and Dreams, is more metaphysical. “A birdsong can even, for a moment, make the whole world into a sky within us,” he muses.

Birding by ear multiplies that blessing.

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I’ve always felt that keeping a nature journal would be a good thing, but I never started one until I was given The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World around You, which I described in Tolkien, Trees and a Naturalist’s Notebook: Noticing Nature as Mordor Looms. More notebook than journal, it has a unique 5-year spread and has allowed me, now that I’ve used it for 3 1/2 years, to recall when I saw the first robin of each year and much, much more.

As I was researching this piece I discovered three podcasts at Bird Note worth passing on to you. I’m already a fan!

Photos by Tom Bradley and Andy Holmes on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “The Blessing of Birding by Ear: Tips for Identifying Birds by their Song

  1. I really enjoyed Jon Young’s book. It is super helpful in understanding different kinds of bird songs and language. Great post!

    1. Thank you so much Mark! I agree, Jon Young has made a huge difference in my awareness of the natural world every time I venture out!

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