Learning bird songs

I am developing a really nice little library of birdsongs captured by my Ring cameras. Sometimes I can see and recognize the bird, but not always. I have a serious problem remembering calls to compare them with recordings online. That’s odd, considering that I’m a musician, but it is what it is. Any suggestions for improving my skills? I have Larkwire, but I’m not making much progress. Should I post the calls and let the community suggest ID?

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Yes, absolutely post them and we can help. Learning bird vocalizations and developing the vocabulary to differentiate them is difficult and can take years to get good at. As a musician, you have some advantage – imagining what they would look like as sheet music is helpful for me (like a dark-eyed junco song would look something like a bunch of 32 notes or so on one pitch). Examining the sonograms is also helpful for visualization. And use mnemonics to help remember them, the more eccentric the better.

Beyond that, repetition, repetition, repetition!

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Absolutely post them! Everything was said in the first brilliant answer, but I want to add there’s only a few people that are very good at bird songs, most of us forget many of them through winter and relearn each spring, so making a habit listening to tons of videos with them is definitely a thing to consider especially if you can’t sit outside 24/7, plus it helps with recognizing something new.

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One point that I hope will help – try to focus more on the tone of the song rather than the melody. (The singer, not the song… Most people learning bird songs are actually interested in identifying the bird rather than which of their different song types they’re singing at the moment.)

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All great answers here. A wrinkle is that sometimes birds have a different ‘dialect’ and can sound a little different than they are supposed to. Some, like black capped chickadees and white breasted nuthatches make a bewildering array of sounds. And yes,

It’s taken me years to remember vocalizations. It doesn’t help that we have such a long winter, and I have to re-learn many songs each spring!

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I tried to learn the warblers a few years ago so that I would be ready for spring migration. I live in NE Ohio. Some very experienced birders told me to slow down and try to learn no more than 5 per week. That worked much better than trying to go through the whole list of warblers songs. A lot of them sound similar.

I also found it very helpful to look at a photo of a bird while listening to its song. I think there is some eye-ear-mind coordination going on there.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has CDs of bird songs with booklets of the birds. But, you should be able to use other resources. This page in the Cornell website allows you to find birds by family. The linked pages to the families of birds have photos and songs for each species. So, you could go through the thrushes or warblers a little bit at a time.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse/taxonomy

The Audubon app and the website, and Merlin app also have songs with a species accounts. The Audubon app and website have a lot more variations for a bird. Warblers, for instance have a dawn song in addition to a normal song.

I would also like to recommend book by Dr. Donald Kroodsma. He is a bird song researcher. His book “The Singing Life of Birds” was fantastic. The books may not help you learn the songs; but, you would certainly learn a lot from them. The books come with CDs so you can listen to the bird Dr. Kroodsma is discussing.

The Stokes Field Guides also have CDs. I have the guide to all of North America. I have listened to that a few times. It is fun to listen to birds not in my region.

I think using multiple resources is helpful.

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Sometimes I’ll be out hiking and I’ll hear an unfamiliar birdsong. So I’ll run home, and search up the songs of my guessed birds on the internet, so I can identify the song. One method I use to try and remember it once I get home is sing it over and over all the way there. (Not the best method, but it usually works for me😂)

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Yea, I use the Audubon website, it works great!

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Lately I have been using BirdNET on my phone to record songs/calls and hopefully identify them. I have not used this a lot but the relatively few times I have, I have been happy. It produces a sonogram which allows me to visually crop the recording and save the specific grouping of notes that are of interest. The app can analyze the recording and give one or more suggestions. I am not sure how intercontinental this is but it can record and sonogram and crop and save which in itself is a good tool.

I have even used it to help identify birds which were left as unknown on iNat by recording the song/call from my computer, altering the place. If I have or recieve an impression of species, I have used the sonogram to compare on the Macaulay Library to find something that is very close to sounding like the observation. I have then used that external reference in my comments so that the OP can compare themselves.

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Carolina Chickadees are supposed to say “fee bee fee bay” but my local birds say “fee bee bay”. The pitch change sounds like they are singing “three blind mice”.

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I have the Stokes CDs. I converted them to mp3s and put them on my phone. While I’m listening to a bird in the field I will play my best guess with the volume down low and the speaker held to my ear so as not to disturb the bird.

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I haven’t tried any of the bird-song ID apps yet and although it feels a bit like cheating I’d be willing to use them. Since it’s been years since I studied the songs played from a CD and I’m really rusty these days, the app might get me back into trying to learn or re-learn many of my local species.

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yes - we try to pair songs with descriptors of tones: flute like, whistle like, twittery, chit chit, peep, buzzy, metallic. That helps with common local birds a lot like Blue Jay vs Northern Cardinal.

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Think of it like using the computer vision on iNat. It may reconfirm what you already know or you may need to confirm what it is suggesting. Either way it is a learning process.

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I just downloaded BirdNET to my iPhone and tried it in my backyard. Despite our clucking chickens trying to mess with my recording, it correctly IDed Lesser Goldfinch singing in the background and at some distance away. Very cool.

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I’ve decided this I’m focusing on audio this summer with observations. Over the last near-decade of birding, I’ve been able to identify - by song - a decent handful of birds. But I was kind of stalled at a certain skill level and I knew that a lot of the birds I was seeing reported on eBird at some local birding spots were likely being identified by song without having been spotted. I thought recording more audio and uploading it at iNat could help with that.

Here’s a few off-hand tricks/tactics I’ve developed. Take what seems useful.

Absolutely post audios on iNat. I’ve gotten decent help identifying a lot of the songs I’ve uploaded. Some were birds I didn’t see and wouldn’t have known was there. I have a LOT of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroat songs because, for some reason, I am trying so hard to ‘identify’ I skip over common birds that I actually do know the songs for. But every time I repost an audio or photo of something I ‘should’ remember but don’t, I figure I’m one step closer to finally remembering! As I’m doing more audio recordings, I find I can remember enough about certain calls to look up a bird and check the call to see if I’m remembering correctly.

I use a lot of mnemonics. The Cornell site usually gives ones that many birders use. “Drink your tea” “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha”. " tea-cher TEA-cher TEA!-cher" I remember the sparrow with the ‘bouncing ball’ song is the Field Sparrow because you use balls on fields. And this summer, I could finally remember what Yellow Warblers sound like by learning “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” And thinking of ‘tone’, Yellow Warblers always sound like the fake whispers we did as kids. You know, when you leaned over and just went ‘pspsspsps’ in someone’s ear?

I also developed a notation I can write down to reference in the field or to note a song I’m hearing in the field. It utilizes characters like: * ! / \ |||| ~ that each mean something to me. If I’ve heard something I can’t identify, I’ll often look at eBird reports for that location (we have a lot of parks and nature areas here that lots of people tend to bird in) and then listen to every bird reported for the days surrounding my visit trying to find a match. I once heard a really weird song I’d never heard before and wrote down “like a tired, broken siren” It took me a while to figure it out: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Veery/sounds
I’m sure, if I had recorded it and uploaded it here, it would have been identified pretty quickly!

I can get a bit overwhelmed in the field. If there are lots of birds, I stop being able to process what I’m seeing that is unique to each bird. I realize I’m the same with the songs/calls. I listen back to the audio recordings I’ve taken and realize there is a whole bunch of stuff singing in there I absolutely didn’t notice in the field. I’ve uploaded a few oddball, short ones that don’t get identified. But I think I’m training myself to be more aware of the calls. Not just the loud ones: Blue Jays, Eastern Towhees, Crows. But the soft, quick songs/calls from those that never come out of the bushes.

I’ll also comment that, if you’re recording in the field, then don’t overlook frogs and insects. :-)

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+1 for Birdnet. I use it all the time. It’s the best way to capture sound, crop a section, and save over to iNat. It’s not cheating. Using it to identify and then claiming you have the knowledge would be “cheating”- lying, really. It’s the same as using iNat’s image recognition. Anything to give clues and help us along the way as we learn.

I can relate about the sound forgetfulness. I try to recall songs I think I’m familiar with, and it’s gone. Like learning a language, it takes some deep study. Drills, mnemonics, research, all play a part.

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Haven’t figured out yet how to save it over to iNat from the BirdNET recording.

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[Edit-With android] The list at the upper left (hamburger) gives you a choice to Show observations. Open that. Select your saved observation. That gives you a choice to share. Share to iNat - it does not seem to share meta data so you need to manually fill in location, date, time, and what you saw. Wish I knew a work around to this.

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Having done this not too many years ago and fairly late in life… I recommend starting with smallish chunks. Learn the most common 20 birds, then add some more after you get a foothold. It takes time. It’s work. But you will find about 4+ times as many birds and species around you as the ones you see.

Learning aids in the order of impact.

  1. Going out with experienced birders that will tolerate “what was that?” often.
  2. Having good reference sounds - iBird app, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse
  3. BirdNET - great to confirm if you can get a clean recording. Once you get some skill, it will tell you it’s one of 2 species and you already knew that much.

I love birds that say their names. Chickadee, Towee, Killdeer.

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