Bird Watching 101: How to Identify Different Bird Calls

Bird watching and identifying bird calls is an activity anyone can do. It doesn’t require years of study or expensive equipment, just the will to learn and a love of birds. Listening to bird calls is something the entire family can do together and it’s a perfect way to connect with nature.

If you’ve ever sat outside listening to the birds in your neighborhood, you know how exciting it can be. Like people, each bird has a unique personality and voice.

Before reading any further it’s important to know the difference between a bird call and song. In simple terms, bird calls are used for everyday communications like warning other birds of danger or driving away enemies. Bird songs, on the other hand, are stimulating sounds used for breeding.

A bird song is more pleasing to the ear than a call, and something you’ll want to seek out, but it’s nice to catch a few bird calls too.  Just make sure you don’t cross the world’s most dangerous bird along the way!

Are you interested in learning more about how to identify bird calls? Lucky for you there are a ton of online resources for beginners. We’ve compiled some of them below.

Go Bird Watching Early in the Morning

Remember the adage, “the early bird gets the worm?” It’s true. Birds vocalize the earliest in the morning when the air is still and cool. They sound clearer this time of day, which helps you make a bird call identification.

There is also a phenomenon known as the “dawn chorus,” a time when male birds are more active to attract a mate. He is demonstrating his strength and prowess at a time of day when there aren’t a lot of other noises in the forest.

One important tip for trekking outside to hear bird calls: be very quiet and still.

The slightest noise or motion can make a bird feel threatened. They’ll stop calling and often fly away. Birds have an incredible sense of hearing and can pick up on things as simple as rustling leaves or the turning pages of a field guide.

Locating rare birds in the forest can be challenging. We recommend picking up a good pair of binoculars to be able to spot them from a distance. Then you can move in closer and find the sight of beautiful birds.

Breaking Down the Bird Calls You Hear

Identifying a bird call can be very complex. There may be other birds vocalizing in the area or ambient sounds from human beings. You’ll have to try your hardest to isolate the specific call you want to identify. It may take you a few minutes.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a specific bird call, here are some ways to break down the sound:

  • Determine how many seconds the call or song lasts, even if the bird is repeating
  • Record the bird’s tone (for example, a buzz, rattle or screech)
  • Listen for any shifts in pitch (the highness or lowness of tone)
  • Make a note of any beats or pauses
  • Pay attention to volume and whether it goes up or down
  • Be careful that what you hear isn’t a mimicry of other sounds like car alarms or loud tools

The best thing to do is to carry a little notebook or recorder with you. Your notes or files can be used later to identify a bird call.

Tricks for Identifying Bird Calls 

As you invest more spare time in how to learn bird calls, you’ll pick up many tricks of the trade.

Our five senses help us experience the world, but they can also distract us. Many experienced bird watchers wear a blindfold or close their eyes while listening. Shutting out their vision heightens their sense of hearing.

A good beginner’s technique is to become an expert in your local birds first. This knowledge is transferable to other locations and gives you a reference point for later comparisons. If you studied families of birds, you’ll discover they share similar calls or songs.

And finally, use mnemonic devices to remember bird calls. Associate each call with a phrase you’ll never forget, like how the Barred Owl seems to say “Who cooks for you?” Another trick is to describe the bird in a memorable way, such as comparing the Red-breasted Nuthatch to “a miniature forklift backing up.”

Learn Bird Calls Online or Using Mobile Apps

If you feel comfortable enough to incorporate technology into your bird call identifications, the Internet is full of websites with links to information and audio files.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, for example, has a gigantic library of birds and the sounds they make. Another great place to start is the National Audubon Society. It offers a ton of resources for bird watchers.

With smartphones being so prevalent in everyone’s daily lives, it’s no surprise that bird call apps are now available via the Apple Store and Google Play. The best ones are highly sophisticated and cost $10 or less.

Song Sleuth, for example, allows you to record bird calls and display the characteristics of the sound on a spectrogram. This app helps isolate a specific call and analyzes the recording to provide you with suggested identifications.

Ready to Get Outside and Identify Bird Calls?

Hopefully, we’ve provided everything you need to get outside and start identifying bird calls in your neighborhood. Make sure to start slow and pace yourself. You don’t need to know everything in the beginning.

Learn a few of the bird calls around your house first. Remember, this knowledge can transfer to other birds. When you’re ready to branch out, compare new calls to the ones you already know. You’ll be surprised by how many new birds you can identify.

And, finally, never stop learning more about birds and their calls. Visit organizations like the National Audubon Society or American Bird Conservancy online to read up on the latest news, and join a local bird-watching club to expand your knowledge network.