Brush up on Birdsong

You can’t always count on birds to demonstrate their songs, as this Western Meadowlark is doing.


Since moving to Wisconsin, one of my rites of spring has been the drive to Nebraska for the sandhill crane migration…and the long drive home afterward, often through a snow storm. One thing that brightens the trip is my little stack of birdsong CDs. In fact, I listen to them almost any time that I’m in the car in March and April.

I’m not talking about mood-music CDs – the ones with wood thrushes singing while Clair de lune plays in the background. Mine are ear-training CDs for birders.

To be sure, the best and most rewarding way to learn a bird’s song is in the field. You hear an unknown song and follow it until you can see who’s singing. Watch the bird throw his head back and sing a few times, and that song will stamp itself on your memory.

But some birds are so secretive, flighty, or just plain uncooperative that we might never find them with just our eyes. We need our ears as well. Luck comes most often to those who prepare. Even for birders who know most songs, it’s helpful to review each spring; it’s kind of like dusting off the bicycle that was in storage all winter and airing up the tires.

A variety of birdsong CDs can be found online and in some bookstores and nature shops. My favorite is Bird Song Ear Training Guide: “Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody?” by John Feith. The format is simple. It plays 189 bird songs; after each song, the narrator names the bird and offers a mnemonic. Sometimes I listen intently and repeat everything I hear. More often, I let my mind wander, and the songs settle into my subconscious so that when I hear “Take-take-take it e-e-easy” I reflexively think “Savannah sparrow!”

For birders who need to learn songs, rather than simply reviewing, a good choice is Birding by Ear, published by Peterson Field Guides. On this excellent CD, the narrator provides helpful tips for distinguishing similar-sounding songs. Short quizzes and reviews reinforce the lessons.

It’s a nice feeling, when you’re taking a walk, to hear a bird’s song and recognize it as if it were the voice of an old friend. I can’t think of a finer way to enjoy the sound of home.