Identifying Birds by Sound
Jim Wilson tells us how to identify the singers
and their songs
you start learning to identify bird songs, get yourself a small
notebook so that you can take notes on the birds you see and hear.
A sound recorder is useful, but good ones are expensive and recorders
can be difficult to operate in the field.
songs is not always easy, especially if the singer is hiding in
a bush or is far away. Identification is much easier when you
can see the singer: all you have to do is describe the bird and
listen to its song. Most of us can identify far more bird species
by sight than we can by sound. However, knowing a bird's song
allows you to identify it without having to see it. It is difficult
to describe bird sounds in text; 'Zeep, Zipp' or 'Cep' might describe
the same sound as heard by different people.
on the structure of the song; particularly if it is repeated over
and over again, like the songs of doves and pigeons. Bird songs
often have recognizable sections, called phrases, unique to a
species. Listen out for such phrases and write down what they
sound like. For example the Woodpigeon and Collared Dove both
have cooing songs but their structures are different. The Woodpigeon
repeats the phrase 'Take two, do, take two' while the Collared
Dove's is more like 'Can you coooo'. The Yellowhammer repeats
a phase that sounds like 'A little bit of bread and no CHEESE'.
The Cuckoo is named after its song. 'Cuc-koo' is the male's song;
the female makes a different sound. You can make up your own phrases
to help you remember the rhythm of a particular bird's song.
position while singing can help in identification. Blackbirds,
for example, usually sing from the tops of tall trees or television
aerials. Song Thrushes do the same, but they also sing out of
sight in trees. Some birds, such as the Skylark, sing while in
flight. They nest in grassy meadows where there are no trees,
so in order to be heard by other Skylarks they have sing while
high up into the air. Meadow Pipits also sing on the wing.
birds in a woodland dawn chorus can be a very difficult, because
so many birds are singing together and at full volume. It is a
good idea to visit woodland in the evening, or during the day,
when fewer birds are singing, as it is easier to separate their
songs. Also, if you visit woodland in March, birds will already
be singing but with fewer leaves on the trees, it is easier to
locate and see the singers. Many woodland birds have long complicated
songs but certain parts or phrases of the song can help in identification.
listening to the dawn chorus near fresh water, you may hear the
whinnying song of the Little Grebe and the strange squeals of
the Water Rail. Few birds sing from reedbeds at the edges of lakes,
but the Sedge Warbler, with its chattering warbling song, and
the Reed Bunting, with its black head and white moustache, do
individual birds will sing a bit differently from the norm. Others
will sing in unlikely places. Such birds will keep the listener
on his, or her, toes.
don't worry if you cannot identify a particular song. Stick with
it; in time, your identification skills will improve. It's important
to spend as much time as possible listening to the songs and separating
the ones you know from those your don't know. By doing so, you
will become familiar with songs of birds which you can't yet identify.
You will be surprised at how quickly your bird-song identification
skills will improve.
Wilson lives in Cobh Co. Cork and has been involved in wildlife
conservation in Ireland for the past 30 years. A film-maker, he
recently made a DVD on Irish whales and dolphins. He is currently
working on a documentary about the Black-tailed Godwit.
Writing down what a bird sounds like is not as easy as what
it looks like and when you ask two people to describe a sound
in words you will rarely get the same description. There are a
number of things that you must take note
of when translating what you hear into words
- your surroundings
high above ground is the bird ?
you see it ?
- what does it look like ?
- does it sing in a high or a low voice ?
it singing loudly or softly ?
- does it sing for long periods without stopping or for short bursts ?
there any phrases in the song repeated or does it sound like
a jumble of notes ?
You will probably develop
your own way of writing down bird sounds and you should use
words to remind you of the song.
For example in the song of the Great Tit on this website you will
hear the birds sing what sounds like "Teacher-Teacher-Teacher............".
While this does not tell you whether it sung in a high pitched
or low pitched voice the sound of the syllables in "Teacher" match
the way the Great Tits song goes up and down.
Make up your own phrases when describing a birds song.
Another famous one is the song of the Yellowhammer.
The phrasing of the song sounds like "Little bit of bread
with no cheese"
best way of identifying bird songs is to
record them. Mini-Disc recorders are very useful. They
are very small and the quality of the records will be very good.
Of course you will also need a good microphone. Some of the best
are made in Sweden. Check out www.telinga.com for more information. Many of the home video cameras
have quite good built-in microphones and you could use one of
these to record your sounds.
Using a bird book to identify your mystery singer can be
very difficult and misleading.
If you look at the sound descriptions for the same bird in a number
of bird identification guides you will usually find them to be
different. One book might describe a sound as a long descending
"pheeeeuu" while another might describe it as a long descending
The only problem is if you have no idea what
the mystery bird is where do you start? Most
sound guides have all the birds of Europe, over 350 species! It
would take you the whole evening to go through them all in detail.
There are a number of recently produced Irish tapes of Irish songbirds
which will be of better use to those wanting to identify Irish
songbirds. Ideally you should try to get one sound guide covering
Irish birds and one covering European birds.
best way to identify your mystery singer
is to use a combination of all of the above.
Birdwatch Ireland website