How to Identify Your Local Birds by Their Songs and Calls
This is a rewarding hobby that gets you more in touch with nature.
In the spring and summer of 2020, when stay at home orders were first issued in response to the pandemic, many people who didn't know a sparrow from a seagull suddenly became backyard birders. Who could blame them? Being in a safe space, binoculars in hand, looking and listening for chirping birds was an excellent way to relieve stress and feel happier. Today, birding remains a favorite hobby for almost 50 million people in the United States—and they're folks of all ages. Here's how to get started identifying birds by sight and sound.
Choose your birding style.
As a newcomer, should you first learn by looking for birds or listening for them? "You can choose which aspects of observing birds brings you the most joy," says Ken Elkins, community conservation manager at Audubon Connecticut. "The majority of people are visual learners, and many birds are easy to find as they fly, walk, or swim in front of us." His own preference is detecting most of the birds around him by sound first: "Seeking out that unknown bird sound to find who made that call is often the most rewarding part of my outing."
Listen with respect.
"Recordings are great tools for learning to identify birds by song and calls," says Elkins. You can find recordings on the Audubon Bird Guide App or Audubon.org's "Birding by Ear," a multi-part series that can also help you learn how to ID birds by their vocalization. Since playing the recordings outdoors can disturb native birds, plan on only using them while indoors.
Don't overburden your senses.
If you're new to birding, it may be tempting to try to identify many different birds on each outing, but Elkins cautions against that. "It's best to start with birds you are already familiar with," he says. "Many common birds have distinct songs and calls like the cooing of the Mourning Dove, the repeated phrases of a Carolina Wren or Tufted Titmouse." It's the repeated interactions with common birds that will help you build a foundation for learning more birds and complicated song types.
Make it a more mindful experience.
Bird songs help us relax, and many birders—both newcomers and experienced—are shifting towards a more mindful birding by observing bird language, says Elkins. "That's the practice of slowing down and paying attention to bird sounds, movements, and behaviors. You can learn more about that one bird and its surrounding habitat by noticing how it finds food, what food sources it chooses, and find other birds and animals by noticing what other sounds or movements this bird reacts to."
Look for birds everywhere.
Birds can be found in many places, not just in your backyard and parks. Check with Audubon or the American Birding Association for birding clubs in your state. You'll meet others developing their birding skills and learn about the best spots for finding birds, which often change with the seasons.
Find a quiet place.
"Sorting and filtering out the sounds around us to focus on one bird sound may be the most challenging aspect of identifying birds by sound," says Elkins. "Isolating individual birds in quiet spaces is a way to build your confidence in identifying bird sounds. I start all my outdoor workshops with a moment of counting all the sounds around us, human and naturally occurring, to recognize what else may need our attention." Creating a sound map is also a worthwhile activity.