The sound of a bird is definitely one of nature's greatest wonders. Birds have the power to make a place magical with their unbelievable sounds. No other animal on Earth has the same capability to produce so many sounds for so many purposes, and give a place a melody.
Yet, at the same time, that’s the greatest challenge for birdwatchers. You, like any other birdwatcher, including us, have felt this more than once for sure.
Identifying birds by their calls and songs or, as known as, birding by ear, is certainly a great challenge for bird passionates, and sometimes the reason for some of the biggest frustrating moments. However, from the bright side, the sound is very often the best way to detect a bird’s presence. Also, for species that are easy to identify but difficult to distinguish, the voice may be the best clue.
Learning the sounds of the birds is, like any other skill, something that needs practice, persistence and patience. The feeling isn’t much different from the one we might have had when we started birdwatching. At first, everything seems too much and too similar, but then, gradually, things become easier every time we go to the field.
So, whether you're just starting out with bird watching or delving deeper into the sounds of wild birds, be patient and go step-by-step through the process. As with visual identification, start learning the key sounds of familiar birds, and whenever you're out in the field, try to shift your focus to the sounds and chase them (with ears and eyes!) to the bird. Attention here to what we mean by the word chase. Sure, you can walk towards a sound, but please be aware of birdwatching codes, respecting distances and other wildlife.
Don’t worry if you don’t see the process in your bird sound identification. It may take some time, as our ears and brain might be less trained (or used to) for challenges like this. And, remember, you’re not alone struggling with bird sounds. If you are consistent in your learning, you will build up your mental library.
Here are some tips for you.
In the outdoors, spend time analysing the sounds, rather than passively listening to them. Describe the sound to yourself, write it down in a way you will remember it, use mnemonics. Take advantage of your birdwatching journal or notebook to describe what you are hearing, the tone and vibe, the number of syllables, and dare your creativity to make some mnemonics. Finally, challenge a buddy to go to the field with you and practice together.
Besides, luckily for us, technology evolved in this matter too. In the same way as visual identification, nowadays, we have several digital tools to help us out. Either smartphone applications or online platforms, you are likely to find something suitable for you. Yet, although these tools are great support, they are not perfectly accurate nor miraculous. Especially if you rely on apps to use in situ. You would still have to work hard in this skill if you want to be able to identify birds by sound.
Nevertheless, we will share with you some applications and websites you can explore and use from now on. In the first place, we will mention the websites, as in our opinion are more trusty and complete. Two good platforms are xeno-canto and eBird.
The first one is worldwide known and it is possibly one of the best places to search for sounds of wild birds. It is a collaborative project, where the records are uploaded by other birders and scientists. There you can, listen to the sounds whenever you want and even download them for a device (smartphone or voice recorder).
The CornellLab, on the other hand, has recently added on eBird, sound identification in the exploring species section. So, every time you search for a species there, you will find a bottom above the images where you can listen to that bird's sounds.
Example of what a bird's song list looks like in xeno-song.
We hope you feel motivated after this article to challenge yourself for birding by ear. Spring is coming, don't miss the opportunity for your first trial. There's no better time of year to start exploring the sounds of birds!