#bioPGH Blog: Birding by Ear
Jul 11
2019

#bioPGH Blog: Birding by Ear

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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It happens all the time—I hear a bird twittering away, but I just can’t remember who sings that song. I look around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the feathered crooner, but more often than not, my view is stymied by trees or shrubs. Foiled! But what was that bird? How can I find out what it was?

If this has happened to you, too, there is one trick we can learn to help reverse our birding luck: learn to bird by ear. Birding by ear simply means learning to identify birds by their call. It can be tricky and some of the best birders I know have been building this skill for years; but you and I can start small with some of the more common birds that we will hear around western Pennsylvania. Let’s learn together!

Below, I created a list of calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library – a fantastic online resource for all sorts of bird-related media. I do want to stress, though, that these are just a few of the more common species you might hear in the area, and I only list one song for each bird. We have so many more species than represented on this list, and each species has a number of calls, not to mention that a species’ calls can vary geographically! This is just to get us started. 

In the meantime, let’s get listening! (As you listen, you can see the calls visualized on an image called a spectrogram. Learning the patterns of visualized calls can also help you learn to bird by ear.)

 

Northern Cardinal— Cardinalis cardinalis

Kent Fiala/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167560711)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

American Robin— Turdus migratorius

Mario Gervais/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML166506161)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Blue Jay— Cyanocitta cristata

Andrew Lawrence/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML166750471)

Bonus: Blue Jay Masquerading as a Red-shouldered Hawk (Audubon Society)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Northern Mockingbird— Mimus polyglottos

Mockingbirds are a bit tricky since they can imitate other birds, but if you hear a song that seems to be composed of several other bird calls in row, each call repeated a few times before moving on the next call, that’s probably a mockingbird. (Other birds can imitate as well, and sometimes the number of times a call is repeated can help you distinguish species.)

Peter Blancher/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167419121)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Mourning Dove— Zenaida macroura

Mourning doves do vocalize, but their wingbeats can also be mistaken for a call.

Wings

valerie heemstra/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167419121)

Vocalization

Steven Biggers/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML166968201)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

White-breasted Nuthatch— Sitta carolinensis

John Kirk/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML164645391)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Grey Catbird— Dumetella carolinensis

Wil Hershberger/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167548001)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Eastern Towhee – Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Charlie Bruggemann/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167556291)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Tufted titmouse— Baeolophus bicolor

Bill Pranty/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167510781)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Black-capped Chickadee— Poecile atricapillus

Julia Plummer/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167539701)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Yellow warbler – Setophaga petechia

Kevin Cheng/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167305331)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Carolina Wren— Thryothorus ludovicianus

Cole DiFabio/ Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML167471171)


Photo: USFWS, public domain

 

 

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: In addition to the large organizations like Audubon and Cornell, the best local resources for beefing up your birding skills are the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Three Rivers Birding Club—both lead regular nature walks with knowledgeable guides and enthusiastic attendees. You can also follow local birder and blogger Kate St. John when she leads birding walks around the Pittsburgh area.


Comments

Very much enjoyed the bird song posting.  I have used the Cornell website, which is a wonderful resource.  I appreciate your selecting and presenting as a group the songs of some of the more common birds in our home yards.  Thank you for producing the bioPGH blog, it is informative and enjoyable.  A nice respite in the deluge of information that flows around us daily.

By Kimberly on Jul 12, 2019