Birding by Ear: Who’s Singing that Song?
by Kathy Austin
My first bird house was a well-crafted, sturdy red barn that hung empty for about seven years with no visitors. It came with us when we moved to a new house and amazingly, we had our first tenants, a family of sparrows.
That bird house lasted for 20 years until the bottom finally rotted out. When the sparrows came back the following spring, there was no home for their return. So I ran and got a small, nondescript house that should have been painted. Even though this new house was far from luxury accommodations, the sparrows came back year after year, hatching three or four broods every spring and summer.
Today I have six bird houses. My husband describes who’s going into which house from the view from our patio window. What I love most about my bird houses is how many more birds have come to my backyard. Listening to their songs on a spring morning does much to lift my spirits knowing warmer weather is coming. I’ve noticed how the bird song changes throughout the day and when the weather changes. When a thunderstorm is approaching, they all are communicating frantically as if to say “take shelter now.” During the storm, they are quiet, but as the rain begins to subside and the storm clouds move away, they resume their chatter. This is my cue the skies will brighten soon.
Listening to all the different birds in my backyard made me realize birding by ear is a hobby I can enjoy. I’ve been collecting birding by ear information and want to share what I’ve learned so far. Most of these resources are free.
- Birdability has a section devoted to birding for those with vision loss. Dig deep into this webpage and you’ll discover tons of information! It includes an extensive list of resources, apps, tips, some free, and some with a cost, for anyone who would like to get started birding by ear. There’s also blogs written by other visually impaired birders on their passion about birding. For birders with low vision, you’ll find tips to share with sighted birders to help you see a bird and how to use a camera to zoom in on a bird you spot.
- The National Audubon Society has a Birding by Ear section where you can get lost in bird songs! Start out with the backyard birding page to learn about common birds that may frequent your backyard. For example, you can hear the difference between a purple finch and a house finch by tapping on the sound recording of each. You’ll also find lots of other resources and “how tos” for birding by ear.
Apps to Try
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the foremost bird research institution in the United States. Their app, Merlin Bird I.D., is free and VoiceOver friendly. It’s easy to make a sound recording with their simple instructions and have Merlin identify the bird for you. The app also contains packs of birds categorized by geographic regions so you can find birds that frequent your area. If you let the app access your location, you can get a list of birds in the area where you are located. This is great, too, if you are away from home and want to explore the birds in a new area.
- If you like to play games on your iPhone, the Larkwire app is VoiceOver friendly. You can test your knowledge as you learn different bird songs. Birds are categorized by family, species or region. Start with the beginner level of Backyard Bird Song Basics.
- The Birding by Ear podcast is a good start for beginners. On each podcast, Beth, an avid birder in northern Utah, groups birds together by similar songs, families or habitats. She also gives you the language to described different bird songs. Take this podcast along with you on a walk in the park and see if you can identify them!
- Birding Tools has a podcast to help you learn bird songs using mnemonics, a strategy that can be used for remembering the different traits of birds. It will give you a great introduction and a fun way to use sound to identify and remember birds by their song.
- The Calling All Birds podcast has five episodes each featuring a different bird species common in most areas. The presenters provide good visual information, bird activities, language to help you understand bird songs and the actual recordings of each.
- Get a great introduction on birding by ear by listening to Hadley’s podcast with Freya McGregor. Freya created AccessBirding.com where she educates nature organizations to improve access and inclusion for birders with disabilities. In this podcast, Freya provides suggestions for getting involved with a local Audubon chapter, equipment you may want to use and tips for recording bird songs.
Even if you don’t get out to a nature or forest preserve, you can still enjoy the bird songs and have fun identifying them, right from your backyard or local park. Birds are everywhere, especially at this time of year when they are so active building their spring nests.
Note: May 13 is World Migratory Bird Day. You can find many events to learn more about birds hosted by local community groups. The theme for 2023 is Water and its importance to the livelihood of birds.
Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense