birding by ear, with nathan pieplow: how to listen to what birds say

EVERY SPRING I promise to learn to recognize a few more voices—bird voices—to tune in more observantly to the members of the incredible chorus around me. When Nathan Pieplow’s new book, the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” arrived, I thought: Help has arrived!

Just as the birds are trying to tell one another something with the sounds they make, we too need a vocabulary for what we’re hearing. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. The book helps us learn the words to describe sounds, and more.  

Nathan Pieplow is an expert “earbirder” who has been intensively studying and recording birds since 2003. A South Dakota native, he lives in Boulder and teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado.

He joined me on my public-radio show and podcast to help us understand a little bit more about what birds are saying, and especially how to be a better listener and “crack the code of what birds are actually saying.”

Read along as you listen to the June 19, 2107 edition of the program using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Be sure to comment at the very bottom of the page for a chance to win the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America.

what birds are saying, with nathan pieplow


Q. The more I spend time with the book, the more I start to “get it.” It’s not like a regular field guide, where you just look at pictures and say, “I’m looking for a red throat and a black crown and a wing bar,” you know what I mean? [Laughter.]

A. Yeah.

Q. It’s a different kind of book, but very interesting. You describe it in the introduction as “a dictionary for the language of the birds.”

A. That’s the idea. There really weren’t any field guides to bird sounds, before mine came out. I kind of had to invent a new kind of book in order to create a field guide to sounds.

The book illustrates the sounds—it creates a picture of each sound using what we call a spectrogram, which is a computer-generated graph of the sound. Reading a spectrogram is kind of like reading music. You read from left to right, and the high notes are at the top and the low notes at the bottom.

It’s just that the notes’ shapes are different, based on what the bird sounds like, what its tone quality is. So if you learn a few basic shapes, and learn a few other tricks and rules, you can learn how to picture a sound and you can also learn how to look at a spectrogram and understand what it’s going to sound like.

Q. And there is a companion sound website to the book, too, at PetersonBirdSounds dot com, so you can use both tools concurrently to deepen your understanding.

How long was the book in the making? This was not a simple thing that you have done. After having the book a couple of months, each time I use it I say, “Oh, I didn’t get that till right now.” It’s a lot of layers.

A. I set out to create this book in 2003, so it was 14 years in the making for the Eastern volume, and I am currently hard at work on the Western volume.

Q. And when we say “East,” people should understand: Don’t tune out if you’re not on the literal East Coast; it’s a big area.

A. It includes the Great Plains, the Midwest, the South and the East.

Q. The same ideas that birds have a language, and that these pictures or spectrograms help to depict them, is good for anyone, anywhere, who is trying to bird by ear, as I keep trying to do better.

Let’s get right back to that dictionary-and-language idea. What are the birds talking about? It’s not just, “I hear the cardinal,” but there is language going on. What are the birds talking about? I know the many catbirds who nest in my garden sound like a bunch of crazy drunks at a bar; it sounds like they’re talking nonsense, but I don’t think they are.

A. Each species of bird has its own language, so you need to learn each different sound from each species and figure out what it means. We can use the cliff swallow as an example.

Q. If people don’t know the cliff swallow, where does it reside; where do people see it? [Photo above from Wikimedia.]

A. It lives all across the country. In the South, it’s only there in migration. But otherwise it’s almost everywhere. They live in colonies under bridges and in culverts, and they build nests, and they fly out during the day and then they capture insects on the wing.

Q. Like the other swallows we see acrobatically doing, or aerobatically.

A. Exactly.

Q. I know you brought along some sound files. Do you want to tell us what we are going to hear the cliff swallow “say”?

A. Cliff swallows have a very simple language, but they have several different words—we can call them words. One is the word that they use for danger, and that is this “zeer” call that they give.

Q. So let’s hear that.

[Sound of cliff swallow saying “zeer” danger call; at 5:48 in recording.]

Q. That does sound like something’s wrong—and we just repeated that; the bird wouldn’t do it in that fast progression.

A. That sound file was looped, but that’s the same basic call that they would give over and over again if they were upset. You would hear it if you go under the bridge and get close to their nests and fly close to your head, and they will say, “zeer, zeer, zeer”—all of them will say the same thing. It basically means “danger.”

Q. What’s next in their vocabulary?

A. They have another call that I call “churt,” which is a contact call. They’re basically telling one another, “I’m here; I’m checking in.” It’s the call that the parents will give when they’re approaching the nest to say, “I’m coming in with food.” So it’s like letting somebody know that you are in the area.

Q. Shall we hear that?

[Sound of cliff swallow saying “churt” contact call; at 6:55 in recording.]

Oh, very different. So that’s the “here I am” of the cliff swallow. What else does it say?

A. They’ve got another call that is really fascinating; we don’t know if any other swallows have this call or not. There is a call that they give only on cool, cloudy days…

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …because on cool, cloudy days, it becomes difficult to be a cliff swallow, because all the flying insects stay down in the grass when it’s cool and rainy. So they have to search very hard for swarms of flying insects, which is their food.

If one of the cliff swallows from the colony gets lucky and finds a bunch of flying insects on a cool, cloudy day, they’ll give this special call that’s called the “squeal” call, and it means, “I’ve found food; come quick and get some before they all fly away.”

Q. [Laughter.] Let’s hear that one.

[Sound of cliff swallow saying squeak “I’ve found food” call; at 8:11 in recording.]

Oh my goodness, that is excited.

A. And that’s one where you would only hear it once, and not in a row like that, but that’s a very interesting kind of rattle-y squeak call that alerts all the other birds in the colony to come and take advantage of the meal while they can.

Q. So that’s part of the vocabulary of the cliff swallow. Who’s another good example of a bird that we might start to listen to more carefully? [Photo of male red-winged blackbird, above, from Wikimedia.]

A. One of my favorite birds to listen to and talk about is the red-winged blackbird, which is one of the most abundant birds in North America. It’s found almost everywhere; most people have them in their backyard of nearby.

The red-winged blackbirds are fun because both the male and the female have a song that’s different. Both the male and the female have a typical song that’s different. Let’s listen to the male song first, and then we can listen to the female song and see how they are different.

Q. OK.

[Sound of red-winged blackbird’s typical male song; at 9:34 in recording.]

So that’s the male—and again, that’s looped, so we were hearing more than he’d do.

A. He’d put 30 seconds in between those. He says, “kong-ka-REE” is the male song.

And then the female has a different song.

[Sound of red-winged blackbird’s typical female song; at 10:00 in recording.]

Q. It is very different.

A. Yes. What the male and female will do a lot if they are a mated pair is they will duet, using those two songs. The male will start by singing “kong-ka-REE,” and halfway through his song his mate will chime in with her “tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-CHEER” song. So he’s start it and she’ll finish it, and they will overlap just for a second in the middle.

I have a recording of that as well.

[Sound of typical red-winged blackbirds’ male/female duet; at 10:39 in recording.]

Q. Of course I think that people think that just male birds sing, and you’re just bringing this up with male and female songs. But in many species females sing as well?

A. Yes, females sing in quite a few species. In some species they sing the same song as the male; in some species like the red-winged blackbird they have their own different song.

Q. Interesting. What’s next with Mr. Red-Winged Blackbird?

A. Well the songs we just heard are the most common kinds of songs, and that sends a particular kind of message. The male gets up on his cattail in the marsh, and he sings his typical song to say, “This is my territory.” And the female is sending the same message with her song: “This is my territory.”

The male will defend the territory against other males; the female will defend the territory against other females, because neither of them wants somebody coming in and stealing their mate.

When they duet like that—when they sing together at the same time—that’s their way of telling each other “I love you.”

Q. Oh!

A. That’s their pair-binding ritual, and at the same time, they’re also telling everybody else in the marsh that they are together. If you go out to the marsh, those two songs sound so different, and the male and the female are rarely sitting right next to each other—usually the male’s up high and the female is often down in the reeds.

Next time you’re out, listen, and then if halfway through that song you hear that “tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-CHEER” from somewhere else—it could be down out of sight—you’ll know his mate is actually answering him, and you are listening to a mated pair.

The male and the female both, they also have a second song type. Red-winged blackbirds are wonderfully complex; they have really a lot to say, a lot of words in their language. So the male has a different song that you don’t hear very often. It’s called his flight song, because he usually only gives it when he’s flying, and usually only give it when he’s flying out of his territory—when he’s leaving the territory temporarily. He’ll sing this song when he is on his was out.

Our best guess as to why he does that is that he is telling his mate, “Honey, I’ll be back in a bit.” He’s basically letting her know that basically she has to hold down the fort while he’s gone.

Q. Oh!

A. His flight song is actually much longer and more complex than his normal song.

Q. So let’s just hear this one once—the male flight song.   

[Sound of red-winged blackbird male flight song; at 13:45 in recording.]

It is different.

A. That was just all one male flight song. You don’t hear that very often in the marsh; they don’t give it very often. But they do it once in awhile, if you’ll listen. Then the female has another song type as well, that she gives, and is more aggressive. The one we heard before is her courtship song, that she gives with her mate, and this is when she really wants to get someone out of her territory; a much more aggressive kind of song.

[Sound of red-winged blackbird female aggressive song; at 14:28 in recording.]

Q. Again, that’s looped—but boy, I don’t want to stay around her. [Laughter.]

A. You can hear it’s kind of an angrier sound.

Q. I’m going away! Definitely. It’s funny; I have a lot of house wrens, right by the house [laughter]. I feel like they are yelling at me all the time. They have a bawdy voice.

A. [Laughter.] They have a beautiful song and then they have some really, really harsh chatters when they get upset.

Q. Yes; it’s a little bird but it’s got a lot to say. [Laughter.]

I want to get some tips from you. With the book, as I said, at first I was like, “Ooh, I’m looking at these pictures, these spectrograms, and I’m not quite sure what I am doing and seeing.” I have gotten deeper and deeper into it, again using the audio files as well.

What I found was that early in the book, you really pared down what I should be thinking about. I’ve been listening to birds for like 35 years, but very amateurishly, and I never organized my thinking as sharply as you have enabled me to start to do.

You said that we should ask ourselves just two questions about the patterns of repetition and speed to at least start to zero in on who’s doing the singing. Explain.

A. In order to talk about bird sounds, and really understand what we are hearing, we need to have a shared vocabulary. So a really simple thing to listen for is first of all:

Are the notes in the bird song the same, or different? Is it the same note being repeated in that bird song, or is each note different from the last? That’s the first thing to ask.

The second thing to ask yourself is: Are those notes slow, or fast? The basic rule of thumb I use is, are they slow enough that you can count them, or are they too fast to count?

If you can answer those two questions, which anybody should be able to answer, you can tell what kind of basic category of sound you are listening to. [More on the four basic patterns of repetition and speed, on Nathan’s Earbirding website.]

So if you are hearing the same note over and over again, repeated, and it’s slow enough to count, we’re going to call that a series. But if you hear the same note repeated but it’s to fast to count—they all kind of run together into one sound—we call that a trill.

Q. So I’m thinking—and tell me if I am even close—that a series is a tufted titmouse, maybe, and a trill is a chipping sparrow [above, photo from Wikimedia].

A. Exactly.

Q. I don’t know what birds we are going to hear, but should we hear a single example?

A. I think we’re going to hear those two birds.

Q. You’re kidding me. Wow, boy, do I have ESP. [Laughter.]

A. Those are I think my examples.

Q. They’re two of my mainstay birds; I have a lot of both in the garden, so that’s why I say them. So let’s hear one instance of the series.

[Sound of tufted titmouse’s series; at 17:53 in recording.]

A. There’s your titmouse.

Q. So it’s slow enough to count, but the same note being repeated—so that’s a series. Let’s hear a trill.

[Sound of chipping sparrow’s trill; at 18:05 in recording. Spectrogram depiction below.]

My little friends. [Laughter.]

A. And that’s the chipping sparrow. You think of it kind of just as a single trill, but if you listen to it, it’s the same note but it’s just being repeated really, really fast so that it all just runs together into one sound.

If the notes are different, we’ll have two different words for that. If the notes are different and they’re slow, so that you can hear each one clearly and count them, that’s what we call a phrase. And then if the notes are different and they are so fast that they all run together and you can’t figure out how many notes you’re hearing, we call that a warble.

Q. So shall we hear a phrase?

[Sound of phrase; at 18:54 in recording.]

Who’s that?

A. That’s an Eastern meadowlark singing. [Spectrogram depiction above right.]

Q. Ah, that’s not somebody who lives with me; I knew that. I don’t know the sound, and didn’t know what it was. So it’s different notes…

A. Yes, about five or six notes there, and each one is a little different, but you can pretty easily tell that there are only a few, and you can count them. Whereas if you hear a whole bunch of different notes all jumbled together, that’s what we call a warble. I believe the example for this is a house finch. [Photo from Wikimedia.]

[Sound of house finch’s warble; at 19:37 in recording.]

Q. [Laughter.] A warble, but not from a warbler, but from a house finch.

A. Actually warblers don’t generally warble.

Q. Oh, dear, now I’m confused. [Laughter.] So by just doing those two things, asking those two questions and understanding those two subdivisions within each one—it really right away makes it clearer. And then if you have the book in your hand, the book has sort of these indexes and so forth that help you look at groups of birds that it might be. Is that the idea?

A. Yes, so every sound in the book is listed in the index, in a group of all the sounds that are similar to it. You can look up any sound you want. If you hear something that sounds kind of like a titmouse, and you’re not sure what else it might be, then you can go look up titmouse, and the titmouse song, and it will give you a list of all the other birds that sound similar. Then you can go to the website, and instead of having to navigate through 5,000 sound files, you can narrow it down to the ones it’s likely to be.

Q. Since I’m getting all this advice, where else besides PetersonBirdSounds dot com, and the book, what other things online shall we use? I’ve seen you refer to Xeno-canto dot org, where a lot of people interested in bird sounds share things.  

A. Xeno-canto dot org is a place where people can upload bird songs that they have recorded. Right now I think they have something like 9,700 species represented—it’s something like over 95 percent of all the birds in the world are on Xeno-canto right now. You can just type in a bird, and listen to it—hear all the recordings that anybody has uploaded from all over the world.

The eBird dot org website actually gives you similar functionality. If you go to eBird dot org/media, you can type in any bird sound. And there you get not just any bird sound but also the photos that people have uploaded themselves from all around the world.

Q. Your website is earbirding dot com, correct?  

A. Correct.

Q. As I said, I’m just getting deeper and deeper into the book. Give me another year [laughter], as I think they said in a Robert Heinlein science fiction book, to “grok it,” to really get it a little better. It’s a whole other language for me.


enter to win ‘peterson field guide to bird sounds’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (keep scrolling below the last reader comment):

How are your “earbirding” efforts going? Are there birds in your garden whose voices you recognize, or especially love? I am surrounded by a din of catbirds, house finches and tufted titmice who never stop from dawn to dusk, but really look forward most of all to the eerie voices of the thrushes: the veery and the wood thrush, especially.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close on Tuesday night at midnight, June 27, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.

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 June 19, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(All spectrograms from Nathan Pieplow; bird photos from Wikimedia as credited. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links may yield a small commission.)

  1. Marianne says:

    Great podcast, inspiring! I always try to learn their songs to know who my avian companions are, this will jump start my learning curve! Thanks!

  2. Belinda says:

    This is my second year to have a bird feeder in my back yard, I wanted to see what birds it would attract, I’m in north central Oklahoma. Not many unusual birds at all but I absolutely LOVE sitting out there and listening to the voices coming from all directions! I’ve a blue jay and cardinals, red winged blackbirds, tons of mourning doves, and one of my favorites, the mockingbird! I also have hummingbirds and hear the occasional woodpecker. I am fascinated by all of the calls and would be thrilled to have a copy of this book! What a cool guy!

  3. Judy R says:

    I have been a birder for years. Now in my back yard I know all the local bird sounds so my ears go up when I hear something different. I still have trouble with warblers and would like to catch on better for them. Now I will be moving south so new sounds to learn. So please count me in.

  4. Mary says:

    I just had three baby robins fledge. Their mother built her nest under my front porch on top of a grape vine wreath I made from prunings. I would love to learn what mother robin was communicating to her little family.

  5. Janis Barry says:

    I have been an amateur birder for some time. It is wonderful to get more information as to what the birds are telling us…

  6. Nell says:

    The most helpful thing for me in learning bird sounds has been the appearance of snags in the garden (ash trees that succumbed to borers) — because it lets me occasionally see the bird as it makes its sound. Red-winged blackbirds have been a recent “find” in that way, and I realize now it was a female telling me (and other female blackbirds) to stay away.

    Some sounds I know from childhood: mockingbird, mourning dove, wren chatter, crows, jays, the weird cry that pileated woodpeckers make. But most of the many other birds here are still a mystery, so I’m looking forward to buying a copy of this exciting new book.

  7. Kir Talmage says:

    Oh please count me in!

    I’m pretty visual (I draw/paint) but my musical skills seem to have ended in 5th grade when I was asked to sing more quietly (I didn’t, but I digress). So I’m trying to level up my mental mapping-sounds-to-sonograms …even if they’re just what I think of rather than actual sound recordings. It’s so helpful!

    I’m not very far along yet, and I look forward to exploring more here and over on the Cornell Labs site. Thank you!

  8. judith rosser fulmer says:

    I am dying for this book! Just this morning I went out to peruse garden and make a bouquet and was “attacked” by several different birds nesting al over the place. Your interview made me realize the different calls made for different circumstances. One was a red winged blackbird in my pond cattails. A robin in smoke bush in garden. Another in juniper next to bridge. Another phoebe on top of window frame next to deck. The robin, I think, surprised me from behind with a hugh fluttering of wings in my ear!! Scared me bigtime.

    Thanks. I love your newsletter. I post a gazillion flower pictures on my fb page.

  9. Tashy says:

    I know the blue jay, the Northern Flicker, cardinal, chickadees, morning doves, crows, and I think, the cat bird. A little bird that looks like a cat bird, who will scream the same call over and over and over. (the guy never gets tired!) Just doesn’t sound like what I’ve looked up online. I took a couple of classes once on learning bird calls -they were great – problem is, it’s like a language – you have to be exposed to it regularly to remember it. I think this book idea is fantastic and long overdue and what I’ve been searching for! I am always trying to look up bird sounds on the internet and would love this book!

  10. Tina Knezevic says:

    Lucky me I recently had three baby Blue Jays living in my tree and hopping around our property. Their mother was not too far behind protecting all her children and diving near my head every time I was too close to her baby Blues. They can fly now and now live in my backyard. They seem to remember me and are not afraid of me. All three of them hand out and sing all day. I know it’s them even when they hide behind the leaves as they have a beautiful distinct sound. They sing and communicate the loudest in my neighborhood and know exactly when they arrive by listening closely to their high pitched songs.

  11. Carmen says:

    As an extremely visual person, ear ID is something that I have struggled with and keep trying to improve on. Little by little I am, but this book would be a great help. In my last job as an environmental educator, I realized how important being able to identify sounds is to sharing my love of birding with students. Many times the children would only hear the birds we encountered in the woods. Having them stop and listen was one of the best ways of connecting them with their surroundings.

  12. Mara says:

    I can pretty much identify all the usual city birds but the ones that always stump me are the warblers in the spring. If they aren’t rare they sure aren’t noticeable and I know I’m probably the only one who hears them on my busy street.

  13. Emily Heagle says:

    I have been in “training” with my “earbirding” mom for the last year. I can now recognize many of my back-yard and neighborhood birds by ear, including cardinals, robins, goldfinches, common wrens, chickadees, bluejays, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, English and chipping sparrows, orioles, starlings, crows, red-winged blackbirds. I’m still working on nuthatches, house finches, owls and hawks. I hope to win this book and learn a bit more.

  14. Carol says:

    Would love the book. I need to learn to earbird. I have several common birds with whom I have become close due to their eating from the cat food bowl I used to feed a stray cat last year. Although the cat problem has been solved, the birds still insist on their cat food. Bird food won’t do it for these guys (Starlings, Cardinals). They want their cat food the minute I get home from work, and they come right up to me and let me know it. Seriously, I would love to learn about all the many birds I encounter, and I would enjoy the book.

  15. Mark says:

    Great interview! I love my backyard birds and can identify all of them by song and can tell, for example, when troglodytes aedon (house wren) is in a cheerful mood or when she is alerting other wrens that a dangerous visitor (neighbor’s cat…and, no, I do not appreciate their trespassing) is in the vicinity. In fact, I know pretty much the location of the unseen intruder around my yard just from the location of the wren following and scolding from directly above.

  16. Cherie says:

    I sure smile when hearing the calls and songs that I recognize – pileated woodpeckers, catbirds, bluebirds, and a few others, so I’ve been working on my skills and this book sounds great.

  17. My favorite bird calls in my Iowa yard come from the dear little chickadees, the singing wrens, the yank-yanks of nuthatches, the high pitched tweets of cardinals, the odd cries of catbirds, the loudness of blue jays, and the distinctive sharp call of the red-bellied woodpecker. All of these sounds have me running to my windows.

    Thanks for the giveaways!

  18. Anne Conatser says:

    We have a Mockingbird who we call Bob who hangs around our place. He and I communicate almost daily. By the way, the Mockingbird is our state bird here in Tennessee. I would love the book.

  19. Kathy says:

    I often hear a bird before I see and know the bird calls of my garden but we recently purchased a remote lake property and the birds there speak a whole new language and aren’t easily seen because they are high in the canopy. I find myself “guessing” what they possibly could be and then visiting All About Birds on my iPhone to play bird calls to see if they match. As you might infer, I rarely find a match!

  20. Lois Cox says:

    I especially enjoy hearing the Eastern Towhee tell me to “Drink your tea.” It is a regular visitor to our yard and I hear it almost any time I am out in the yard in the spring and summer.

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