For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Songs

Original Air Date: June 5, 1992

Laura gives tips for remembering some common bird songs. (4:37) date verified.

Audio missing


People who search for birds for fun used to be called “birdwatchers.” But over the years, more and more people noticed that most of the birds they counted on an outing were never watched at all. Experienced hobbyists do at least 80 or 90 percent of their identifications by ear, recognizing the songs and calls of many species just as easily as their plumage. So now people serious about the bird game are called birders.

One of the first tricks in learning bird songs is to memorize phrases that call to mind the rhythm of a bird song. A familiar one is the Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody of the White-throated Sparrow. Of course, as soon as you cross the border into Thunder Bay, Ontario, the white-throat changes its tune. Up there it sings O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.

To learn the song of the Yellow Warbler, just remember the phrase Sweet, sweet, sweet, aren’t I sweet? The American Kestrel, a little insect-eating falcon, has a sharp killy-killy-killy. One of the flicker calls is wicka, wicka, wicka. Song Sparrows sing a jumble of notes, and every Song Sparrow sings a different tune, but just about every one begins with two or three identical notes before breaking into the jumble. I learned that one as Peace, peace, peace, all my little children peace, but for most people that song takes more imagination than others.

The quality of some bird songs or calls makes them easy to learn. The chickadee is well-known by its chickadee-dee-dee call. The catbird was named for its mewing call note which is occasionally incorporated into its song, too. The Mourning Dove’s plaintive song reminded early ornithologists of someone grieving, or mourning. A Cedar Waxwing sounds like a tiny mouse snoring. A Swamp Sparrow sounds like a sewing machine. A Marsh Wren sounds like an old-fashioned treadle sewing machine.

Up here in the Northland, we get both crows and ravens, which are most easily distinguished from a distance by their voices. You can always hear some kind of caw caw when a crow calls. Ravens have more of a croak.

The American Robin’s familiar song is an important one to learn. It seems to sing in long sentences, usually made up of three-syllable words. After you recognize the robin’s song, other songs become easier. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s rich phrases make it sound like a robin who’s had voice lessons. The Scarlet Tanager sounds like a robin with a sore throat. One of the most common bird songs in any northland forest or wood lot is the Red-eyed Vireo’s. This bird sings short phrases over and over. The tone quality reminds some of a robin with a stutter, and the incessant, repetitive droning all day long reminds some of a boring minister. That’s how the Red-eyed Vireo got its nickname, the preacher bird.

It doesn’t take much practice to recognize a good variety of bird songs. As soon as you get a few down pat, others become easier and soon you’ll be noticing birds singing wherever you go.