birdnote q&a: bird songs and calls demystified

chestnut-sided warbler by tom greySUDDENLY EVERYONE is waking up. Each morning as we run up to full-on spring, another bird voice seems to join the strengthening chorus. But what are birds vocalizing about, and why—and how can we learn to tell who’s saying what, even when they’re out of sight? In Part 7 of our popular ongoing series, Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program helps us understand what’s going on as we look—or turn our ear—skyward.

“You may not (yet) know the difference between a bird’s song and its calls,” says Ellen, “but the bird sure does. It’s often sending a special message to another bird–or other birds–of its species.”

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss, since we’re talking sound this time. I recommend making a big pot of tea, and planning to spend some time with these answers and the corresponding sounds–it’s like a beginner’s course in birding by ear. Enjoy.

American Robin male © Tom Grey

bird songs versus bird calls

Q.  OK, I’ll take the bait, Ellen: What’s a bird call versus a song?

A. Naturalist and writer Jules Evens, explains: “Bird song, usually produced by the male, is an advertisement of territory and breeding availability, and, in most species, is limited to the breeding season … to stimulate and synchronize sexual behavior (seduction), and to proclaim vigor and dominance. …

“Bird calls tend to be unmusical, acoustically simpler, and less complex than the proclamatory songs, and they serve a variety of practical, non-sexual functions … to communicate whereabouts between pairs or among members of a flock, warning sounds, sharp notes to intimidate or drive away enemies, and begging pleas.”

Listen in: Here’s some out-loud proof of the difference.

wood thrush, robin, chickadee voices

Q. Acquaint us with some familiar voices.

Wood Thrush by Steve MaslowskiA. Among the most beloved songs is that of the wood thrush (above, photo by Steve Maslowski). Henry David Thoreau said: “It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.” Donald Kroodsma says of the same bird, “we’re hearing a little bit of magic.” Could any more be asked of a bird’s song? Have a listen.

You may be most familiar with the call of the black-capped chickadee–simply calling its name. One of the songs of the male black-capped chickadees really does sound seductive–it sounds as if he’s saying “hey, sweetie.” When that same chickadee calls–”chick-a-dee-dee” or “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”–it may be saying literally, “Chickadee here! Here I am!”

If there’s a cat or an owl or other predator nearby, it’s likely to add a few more “dees”–the more danger, the more “dees.” Listen to both songs and calls, then learn about chickadee codes.

Everyone knows the “cheerily-cheerily” song of the American robin–quite often the first song of the morning and the last of the evening (unless there’s a mockingbird in the neighborhood, when all bets are off). But the scolding or alarm call of that same robin (as in the photo, by Tom Grey) can set even a human on edge. Check out the robin’s songs.

the seasonality of bird song

Q. Do some birds sing year-round?

A. Given that a bird’s song is mostly about territory and seduction (as Jules Evens calls it), you’ll generally hear it only in spring and early summer, when the birds are nesting. In some species, the brain actually changes and the bird is physically incapable of singing during the fall and winter.

A few birds sing throughout the year, although not as much–notably the winter wren and its cousin, the Pacific wren, the Northern cardinal, and the song sparrow. Oh, and that Northern mockingbird!

discerning birds’ ‘notes’ and ‘vocabularies’

Q. When I read guidebooks describing birdsong I often think that it’s got its own language, like the “notes” experts say they taste in fine wines. (I can’t understand those, either!) Can you explain some of what I’m listening for?

A. Whether it’s a song or a call, you may be able to identify a bird by its notes, even if you can’t see it. Listen for a raspy sound, or a trill, or a flute-like and upward-spiraling quality, for instance. Here are examples, in an audio file.

A field guide often describes a bird’s vocalizations with these sorts of words, which may help you identify that hidden bird. A chipping sparrow’s song is often described as having dry notes.  Meadowlarks–both Eastern meadowlarks and Western meadowlarks–are said to have clear, liquid songs. That’s a far cry from the metallic songs of the Eastern towhee and its Western cousin, the spotted towhee.

Q. What’s behind the different sounds—how did they evolve to be distinct?

A. Different sounds travel better in different environments. Some birds sound the way they do because of where they live. The marsh wren makes its home in dense stands of cattails, often singing from a perch down within the reeds. Its rapid, choppy, lower-pitched notes carry effectively there.  The olive-sided flycatcher, for example, sings while perched atop a tall tree, and its high-pitched, whistled song carries at least half a mile through the open air. Sharp, clear notes are ideal for a tree-top singer. Listen to how bird songs reflect habitat.

Q. I’ve also read about birds’ “vocabularies,” a sort of method of transliterating bird sounds into English words.

A. Yes, one more way to identify a bird by its song or call is to use Roger Tory Peterson’s vocabularies. His Field Guide to Birds of North America translates the song of the Eastern Towhee as “drink your tea.” Can you hear it?

The common yellowthroat, a warbler truly common across the U.S., is unmistakable with its “witchety-witchety-witchety.”

It may take some concentration to hear the difference between the “peter-peter-peter” of the Tufted Titmouse and the “TEACHer-TEACHer-TEACHer” of the ovenbird.

One easy call to learn is that of the killdeer, a plover, not a songbird but a type of shorebird often seen in pastures or parks and on lawns and golf courses. It’s another bird that calls its own name.

A congenial note is heard from the chestnut-sided warbler (top photo by Tom Grey), who supposedly sings, “please please pleased to MEETcha.” And two sparrows, the White-throated Sparrow of the East and the White-crowned Sparrow of the West, have their own distinctive songs. You’ll hear the White-throat sing–depending on your nationality–either “old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” or “oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada,”  while the white-crown sings–in several different dialects, depending on location!–“see me, pretty pretty me.”

sing loud, sing often

Q. What bird sings the most, or loudest?

Red-eyed Vireo male © Tom Grey

A. The winner is the red-eyed vireo (above, photo by Tom Grey), hands down. One was heard to repeat its song over 22,000 times in ten hours! Listen.
Q. I can’t help but ask about that most raucous of talkers, the raven.

A. You may not know that besides their familiar loud vocalizations, ravens also have a love song—also called a comfort sound—heard between pairs and even from young nestlings who have just been fed. People are often taken aback to think of crows and ravens as “songbirds,” but the raven is our largest songbird.

more about bird sounds

Q. Where can I get more help to learn about birds’ vocalizations?

A. The BirdNote store has CDs to help you learn the songs and calls of birds.

Search for songs and calls of specific birds at The Macaulay Library.

Cornell’s All About Birds has a summary–complete with sounds–of most of America’s birds.

how to get birdnote

birdnote logoTHE NEXT INSTALLMENT of my series in collaboration with BirdNote, providing answers from among the 150-plus questions you asked me recently, will be a month from now. If you have questions you’d like us consider, ask them in the comments below.

You may find answers to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE you missed anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:

(Photos of robin, warbler and vireo copyright by Tom Grey; wood thrush photo by Steve Maslowski. Used with permission.)

  1. Deborah B says:

    The red-winged blackbirds are back, and I adore listening to them congregate in a tree top in our yard in the evenings. That sound means spring is here for me, regardless of the 8 inches of snow we just got.

  2. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    Ah, I loved hearing that Robin. I haven’t heard them yet in my garden, but I always look forward to the calls of the Red-winged Blackbirds who are back. I even find myself trying to talk to the Grackles with their “check” sounds. I will have to come back to this post when I have more time. I want to hear that raven love call!

  3. Diana Pappas says:

    Really enjoyable Q&A! I have been working on bird songs/calls identification over the last couple of years. I’ve got most of the year-round residents down, but it’s the migrants and visitors that tend to throw me off! One of my favorite bird calls is the “who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-you-all!” of the barred owl – hilarious! I haven’t heard the wood thrush in person, but the hermit thrush’s song was a revelation when I heard it in person – absolutely beautiful!

  4. One of the unexpected changes in myself that has taken place since I started working in the garden just two years ago is that I now notice the birds – really notice them – for the first time in my adult life. Now BG (before garden), I would have sworn to you that I noticed the birds around me just fine. But I now know that I wasn’t actually seeing them. Now I do. I’m actually about to put up my first-ever birdfeeder (on a pole) in my garden after work today.

    (Not so long ago, I never woulda thought I’d be typing *those* words!)

    – Katie

    1. margaret says:

      Here, too, Katie. The birds taught me to garden, because I wanted to plant things they’d like (and then the garden has then enhanced my understanding of the birds).

  5. Delores says:

    Thanks to you, Margaret, I joined Project FeederWatch three years ago and consequently have a different relationship with birds since. I know the birds in our area and we’ve helped build the numbers around our home due to fresh unfrozen winter water and food. I was so surprised to see bluebirds all winter here (NE) and we have robins all year long too. This was a very interesting post, I loved the links to the bird songs and calls. Gardening, to me, includes birds, insects both good and bad, and snakes – garder and bull. I love being right out in nature! We have snow on the ground but also have tulips, daffodils, and snowdrops pushing through the ground/snow. Soon, soon.

  6. salome presleu says:

    I am very familiar with the robins song after all they nest under our deck year after year. I live in the northwest where I notice the hummingbirds are now staying for the winter season for many a season now, and I hear them siging along with the chicadees and finches too. I thought I hear and see them singing as they picked on the worms in my compost.I must pay more attention of the largest songbirds from now on. It’s so much more joyful gardening when the birds are serenading in chorus. I try to talk to them, and I’d like to think they responded singing..

  7. Harv Daniel says:

    Thanks so much for this series on birds, Margaret. Birding is one of gardening’s
    miraculous rewards, and “birdnote.org” has added yet another dimension to my
    gardening enjoyment. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Harv. I am so glad BirdNote has enriched your world, too — love them. One of my favorite discoveries of 2012; don’t know how I missed them until then.

      Hi, Salome. Robin’s nests everywhere under the eaves here, but our hummingbirds (ruby-throated) leave in September for more favorable climes. I cannot imagine the garden minus the birds; they were my inspiration, really, to make the garden what it is (full of fruit and seed and water gardens and evergreens for cover).

  8. carol13 says:

    I recently lost my job of 38yrs. My first reaction of course was to trim my expenses wherever possible. I’ve always been obssessive about keeping my feeders full. One of my neighbors said, “I guess now you’re gonna have to stop feeding the birds”. I just stared at him. I can’t imagine not feeding them. I have had to cut back, but bird food will definitely still be in the budget. A house just isn’t a home without the sound of birdsong.

  9. emily says:

    Thanks for this post. I can recognize most of the birds in my yard when I see them. But while I enjoy their songs and calls I can’t match them to the birds. So this is incredibly helpful.
    It was also entertaining to watch my cats run around the room looking for the birds they could hear in the audio files.

  10. Nadine Feldman says:

    This is great! I’m enjoying the bird sounds in our area. A family of crows lives nearby, and one day I heard the gentle “love song” from one of them. It surprised me, given the often raucous calls they make, and awakened my curiosity.

  11. Kathy says:

    The male Towhee has been singing his heart out with his Drink your tea song. Finally after 2weeks a beautiful female has appeared and after a skirmish with another male the happy couple has taken up housekeeping in a brush pile at the edge of our woods. Great fun keeping track of the courtship.

  12. Lorie says:

    Thanks! What glorious intimate info on the birds. When the orioles arrive here in eastern NE, usually April 14-18, the males sit up high in the old growth forest about 1/2 a mile away and announce their presence…moving closer day by day. I marvel each year how they remember where I’ve put their feeders as they must come quite close to the house. As more males arrive, there is quite the competition for feeding space and the poor orchard orioles are social outcasts here. Finally the females make themselves known, but the males surely don’t give up feeder space to them easily. I’m guilty of losing whole days watching the action.

  13. Karen says:

    I would like to talk about praying mantis casings. Please remember to look for them when cleaning out your beds of dead foliage. I went to cut down my phlox and discovered an egg casing. I found more on my asparagus. In the garden I actually found 17 separate egg casings. I was so thrilled. I felt like a new mommy to be. I encourage everyone to buy a praying mantis egg casing so you know what they look like. I bought 6 egg casings last year and now I have a total of 22 including the casing I found up front on the cedar tree. Of coarse I am sure that I have more that I haven’t found yet. My favorite is the casing I found on the throttle cable on my rototiller. My husband rototilled the garden before he showed it to me. Yes it was still intact.

  14. Michelle says:

    Now I know what that bird is that sings “Old Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” Thank you for this post – I love the song of the White Throated Sparrow, but never saw him actually singing. Chickadees are already setting up house in our birdhouse. I guess they don’t care that the snow almost reaches their door!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.