birding by ear, with cornell lab of o’s all about bird song

EVER HEARD the expression “birding by ear”? Despite my years-old collection of CDs (and even older tapes!), I have never gotten good at telling who’s who, sight unseen, perhaps knowing merely 15 of the 60ish avian voices who visit each year. A new online resource called All About Bird Song from Cornell Lab of Ornithology aims to improve our ability to retain the vocalizations by visualizing them—and also reveals what song is all about: its purpose, its mechanics, and just how amazing a feat it actually is.  

The Lab of O is nearly 100 years old–founded in 1915–and in the digital era has just grown more spectacular. Mya Thompson, PhD, has a hand in that, as an eLearning Specialist at the Lab, and Project Leader for its undertaking called All About Bird Biology, of which All About Bird Song is a part. She joined me on the radio podcast and taught me to listen closer, and more.

Did you know, for instance, that many birds have to learn to sing—not unlike a child learning to speak? That there are local dialects? Or that, thanks to a specialized voicebox, some birds sing two notes at once?

With this edition of the radio program, I highly recommend you listen in, because Mya brought along recordings to illustrate each point. I’ve tried in the transcript to provide videos, or at least green links, to help you patch it together, but better you stream the show, which began with audio of a summertime dawn chorus—many birds singing, as night turns to day.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 20, 2014 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).



bird-song q&a with mya thompson

Q. The birds wake me up here very early in spring-into-summer. What’s all that singing? 

A. We refer to a dawn chorus as the cacophony of birds that usually early in the morning–and especially during mating season–greets us as we wake up. It’s a common phenomenon around the world, but it’s actually a bit of a scientific mystery.

Q. We don’t know what it’s all about?

A. We have a good guess, though. It’s likely, because a lot of bird song is about males showing off, that it’s mostly about males reaffirming their territory at the start of each day. It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?

Q. Let’s backtrack and hear a little about the Lab of O.

A. We were founded in 1915, as the first graduate course in ornithology, by Arthur Allen. Then in 1945, a group of people formed a bird sanctuary, where our visitor center and offices live now [called Sapsucker Woods; learn about visiting at this link]. The sanctuary was meant to save a population of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but it attracts many birds through the year.

Now we’re a science and outreach institution, part of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We have more than 45,000 members, and we rely on them.

Q.  Before we hear another note of bird song, or talk about any particular bird, let’s explain what the word “songbird” means, anyhow.

lab of o songbird syrinxA. Not all birds are songbirds. It’s a title reserved for a group of closely related species, including thrushes, warblers and sparrows, and what sets them apart is that they have a complex, two-sided voicebox [illustrated, left]. We have a single voicebox; they have a double. That helps them make much more interesting sounds.

The other thing that sets songbirds apart is that they learn to sing, which helps them sing with more variety. So a cardinal is a songbird; a crow is not.

Q. So songbirds actually learn to sing? Like we learn to speak?

A. Yes. For instance, sparrows are famous in the bird world as song learners. They listen to the neighborhood songs as nestlings. They’re still in the nest and they’re listening and listening…but they don’t sing yet.

Then when they fledge and find a new habitat, they go through a babbling period, like young children do, before settling on their adult song. It’s something that’s quite remarkable; not a common phenomenon across the animal world.

[Listen on All About Bird Song to a young sparrow learning, and a more polished adult who has mastered song.]

Q. I assume we’re talking about young male birds learning from older males?

A. Chances are when you hear a bird singing in this neck of the woods, it’s a male. It’s more common for females to sing in tropical species, but everywhere both males and females make calls—calls to stay in touch and alert others to danger. But the more complex and melodious songs would be males, and they are doing it to show off and attract mates.

Q. So all vocalizations aren’t actually songs?

A. Some of the common sounds you hear could actually be coming from the same bird—sometimes singing, sometimes making calls. And the songs and calls together are their repertoires. When you start to learn to bird by ear, it’s fun to open your ears and hear that the birds you love actually have a number of different sounds.

Q. In the longtime All About Birds online encyclopedia, you get audio clips of the various sounds from the individual species, not just one from each bird.

I learned on the new All About Bird Songs feature that birds even have local dialects. Really?

A. Even among members of the same species, they might sing slightly different songs. This is just a natural occurrence, especially when populations get isolated somehow. It’s just like human dialects that closely knit neighbors are staring to use similar words and phrases, and that spins into its own dialect.

It is the same with birds–and it also is a natural outgrowth of the fact that they learn. It’s a very interesting biological phenomenon.

One of the things you can tune into, for instance: your black-capped chickadee might sound different from the one in my backyard:

The one in New York sings a “hey-sweetie” song. But if you go to a population in Martha’s Vineyard, which is somewhat isolated because it’s on an island, they sing something slightly different: “sweetie-hey.”

[The chickadee dialects are at about 11:50 into the podcast.]

AllAboutBirdBiology_songbirdsyrinx_ALeachQ. When you stop to listen, the range and mechanics–or should I say acrobatics?—of birds’ voices defy most, or maybe any, other creatures’ abilities, don’t they?

A. Songbirds are true vocal gymnasts. They really can do things that nobody else can. The reason for this is their unique voicebox, called a syrinx [illustrated higher up], as opposed to our human larynx].

[How birds sing, in illustrations and animation, from All About Bird Song.]

For example, if we listen to the Northern cardinal, you’ll hear some repetitive “whoops” at the end. In those repetitive whoops you’ll recognize a sweep through more pitches than a piano in less than a tenth of a second. This is an amazing feat, and the way they do it is that they switch sides of their voicebox in the middle of the note—in that tenth of a second.

Q. Certain birds even sing two notes at once sometimes, right?

A. Yes, some songbirds are actually using both sides of their voicebox at the same time—making two notes at the same time—something we can’t even imagine doing. Think about if opera singers could sing two notes at the same time. That’s what the wood thrush can do. They really kick it up a notch, and sing two notes at once, and combine them in a final trill in their beautiful song.

Q. What about the veery?

A. The veery has one of the most musical songs of any songbirds, and it’s one of my favorites. They are just creating so many different musical tones as they go through their song. What I love is to let people listen to it at normal speed first, then hear it slow—it will blow your mind. The slowed-down version [at the bottom of the page on this link] sounds like a flute. [Or: at about 16:50 in the podcast.]

Q. So how can the new All About Bird Song help us with our skills at birding by ear?

A. Many of us, such as gardeners, who spend time outside want to improve their ability to recognize birds by ear, and just learn about this amazing phenomenon. It’s truly incredible what birds can do.

There’s kind of a deep connection when we listen to birds singing—an appreciation of what birds can do. One of the reasons we developed All About Bird Song is to help people tune into that: Birds are singing to be heard, but what’s going on there?

One of the things we’ve done is started off with some spectacular, up-close videos of some of your favorite songbirds, and they’re singing. You’re seeing them sing—which is pretty rare, to observe that. You’re seeing the beaks fly as they make these amazing vocal gymnastics. So kind of like lip-reading, it really helps me to see, because I’m a visual learner. It helps me to remember these songs, seeing what these vocal performances look like, as if you were seeing a bird on stage really belting it out.

And then we’ve created a fun game called Bird Song Hero

Q. I failed! [Laughter.]

A. You failed?

Q. Well, I got maybe 50 percent right the first time.

bird song hero spectrogramsA. I don’t consider that failing. It gets really tricky, especially in the second level.

Basically it’s a game that forces you to listen really closely to a song, and then what you have are three choices of different sound visualizations of bird songs [above], called spectrograms. I consider them pieces of art in themselves. They’re beautiful.

So you look at these visualizations, and listen closely, and try to make a match. It really does force you to sit and listen closely.

Q. Visualizing sound—it really does help me to remember the songs.

I want to be sure to give a special nod to that vocalist of all vocalists, the gray catbird. I share the garden with so many of them, and they are real talkers, aren’t they?

A. They take things to a new level, and they’re stealing other birds’ sounds.

Q. They’re mimics.

A. Yes, the mimicry evolved to really expand repertoire, to really, really show off. So you can learn the songs not just of your neighborhood and same species, but even cross-species.

Q. Not just from Dad, but from everybody.

A. Even from frogs sometimes!

Q. Thanks, Mya, for helping me listen more closely and learn to bird by ear.

more learning from all about birds

feathers, Copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 20, 2014 using the player near the top of the transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Illustrations copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

  1. Nell says:

    Our mimic is the mockingbird. One season the resident mockingbird included in his repertoire the odd “ring” of our first cordless phone; we spent several weeks rushing inside to answer non-existent calls before we learned to ignore him. Got rid of that phone, too, for something with more of a traditional ringing sound…

    I’d love to learn to “bird by ear”. What I and I bet other gardeners want is a device that records bird calls and songs happening around us as we garden. Then, later, inside we can replay them from a menu, and press a button to get an ID. It wouldn’t take long to learn the vast majority of the locally common birds, at which point the user can ask the app/device to suggest other birds to learn about and listen to (based on the region and the birds already recorded).

    Then we’d be hooked…

  2. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Having worked outside here for 24 years, I amaze myself in the way I can distinguish the bird calls of my gardening companions. It’s a subtle but continually growing awareness, building into a catalog of images in my mind which correspond to birds I hear but cannot always see. I remember the lightbulb moment of discerning the warning calls of several species at once, indicating a cat strolling through the area. I have heard this countless times. It informs me of outdoor happenings even when I’m inside with windows open. With my head down, working in beds or potting specimens, I can tell who is nearby and often what mood they are in. The appearance of a new species with a new song is immediately notable and adds greatly to the enjoyment of harmonizing with nature. Sounds I hear in early April are different from other times of the year and seem to urge me on to the first chores of the growing season, almost a visceral reaction. My all time favorite call is the beloved Carolina Wren whose local dialect is like a string of floating stars.

    Thank you for this enjoyable and enlightening post!

  3. Terry Snyder says:

    Oh, thank you, Margaret! Love the birds. Have feeding stations and plants to please and nourish. I knew a few of the most common songs, but I am going to make it a project this winter to learn more! Thanks for the information and the nudge in the right direction.

  4. Pippa says:

    Great interview. Thanks. Sounds like you’d enjoy “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” Margaret! It’s a great movie (2014), and on our edition of the DVD, we have the link to the Bird Song Hero game, too!

  5. Valerie says:

    This was just wonderful to listen to and read. I love to sit on the patio and listen to all the birds. I’m very grateful to be able to hear them all. My poor husband cannot hear any higher pitch sounds, so he hears nothing when we sit. I actually heard our mocking bird one year with car alarm sounds, too funny. The older car alarms had went through about 4 different noises, and he had them all. Thanks for this article.

  6. Louise says:

    I heard Mocking Birds while in Central Park, last Thursday, in the Delacourt Theater. It was the Julius Ceasaer production of both high and low regard, given political divisions. But hearing birds while watching a Shakespeare Play was sublime.

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