May 26, 2018
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Birding by ear is a learnable skill

By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

I do much of my birding by ear. It is such an ingrained habit that I can’t shut it off. I automatically identify birds I hear in the background of movies and television shows.

Surely you’ve noticed how often a red-tailed hawk screams during a western movie?

Savannah sparrows sing frequently in the background of television shows. For a long time, producers added singing birds to televised golf tournaments to emphasize the outdoor ambience. CBS once confessed to the practice while televising the Masters in Augusta, Ga., when birders observed that the birds heard in the background of the tournament were not even remotely possible in Georgia.

I have six rules for learning how to recognize bird songs. I revealed the first rule in a column published a year ago. A year is a long time to wait for rule No. 2.

Recall my first rule: The most common birds are the most common. Most of the songs you hear are coming from the same small subset of birds, those birds that are common to wherever you happen to be. Learning the common ones around you makes life much easier because they’re making most of the noise. It doesn’t take long to learn them.

Which leads to my second rule: Divide and conquer. Learning new songs is just a process of elimination.

If you hear a song that is unfamiliar to you, you may not know what it is, but you know what it isn’t. It isn’t one of those songs you know.

For example, a full day of birding in the Bangor area might turn up 16 species of warbler out of the two dozen that breed in Maine. A list of the most prolific singers includes black-throated green warbler, common yellowthroat, northern parula, black-and-white warbler, ovenbird and yellow warbler. Their songs are clear, distinct and easily recognizable.

Once these are learned, the rest get easier because you know an unfamiliar song is not one of them. The list of possibilities has shrunk from 16 to 10.

Soon you can recognize the distinctive songs of magnolia, black-throated blue and Nashville warblers, and the list of unknown songs shrivels to seven. The songs of American redstarts and yellow-rumped warblers are indistinct, variable and confusing. But they are very common birds and give you lots of practice. Soon they are mastered, too, and the list drops to five. It now becomes a lot easier to figure out the identity of a mystery warbler when there are only five possibilities, not 16.

But is it a warbler? If you ask that question, congratulations, you are dividing and conquering. You may not know if a mystery bird is a warbler, but you sure know it’s not an owl.

All warblers are about the same size, often with bright colors and thin bills. With few exceptions, their songs are short and sweet. Finches tend to be musical and long-winded. Flycatchers are harsh. Cardinals, titmice and orioles whistle. American robins, rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers have sing-song patterns. Some birds trill.

Much of birding-by-ear is just lumping what you’re hearing into smaller categories that are easier to manage in your brain.

Take trills, for instance. Four local birds are strong trillers: pine warbler, chipping sparrow, dark-eyed junco and swamp sparrow. A few other birds fall into the category of weak trillers, but ignore them for now. If you hear a strong trill, it is likely to be one of these four species. When you hear a trill, your brain isn’t sorting through Maine’s 300 birds, it is sorting through four. Much easier.

Once you’ve divided the bird world into trillers and non-trillers, it’s a quick step to learn the differences between the four trills. Pine warbler trills are fast and sweet. Swamp sparrows are slow and sweet.

Chipping sparrows are thin and metallic, almost like a buzzing insect. Dark-eyed juncos have a trill that sounds like the ring of an old fashioned telephone. Trust me, you won’t grasp the difference right away.

It’s challenging until you get the hang of it, but knowing that there are only four candidates makes the divide-and-conquer strategy effective.

In today’s gizmo-filled world, there are many computer sites and downloadable apps that can help you identify what you’re hearing. But the only way to truly learn the skill is to step out on the porch right now and practice identifying whatever is making the most noise. After you’ve learned the first one, the rest get easier.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at Bob can be reached at


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