For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Recordings

Original Air Date: June 19, 1995

Today Laura Erickson reviews some bird song recordings. (4:09) Date verified.

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This is the time of year when people notice bird song—at least a half hour before dawn the avian chorus kicks in, and gets louder and louder for an hour or so before birds start dropping out for breakfast. This is also the time of year when lush foliage makes it difficult to find those singers, so it can be very frustrating trying to figure out which birds are producing which songs. This is when bird recordings can be very useful.

A lot of people buy cassette tapes, but they easily become stretched, distorting the sound, and often the tape gets pulled out of the cassette. Also, it’s tedious searching for a specific bird song on a cassette—you have to fast forward bit by bit, and if you go too far you have to rewind. On the other hand, cassettes are wonderfully convenient, especially for listening to in a car. To get the best of both worlds, I recommend purchasing a record or CD and taping selected bird songs onto cassette. As one group of bird songs is mastered, you can just tape a new batch right over them. This way, you can keep the number of species you’re listening to manageable—even the most attentive people have a tendency to tune out even the best bird recording after a short time.

Which brings us to the next issue: which is the best recording? That all depends on you. If you want a huge assortment of songs of birds of North America, you can’t go wrong with the Peterson Guide recordings, titled Eastern and Central Bird Songs, which includes over 250 species on one CD and costs $40, or, to prepare for a trip to the Black Hills or further west, Western Bird Songs, which includes 500 species on 2 CDs and also costs $40. My biggest frustration with the Peterson recordings is that the eastern ones don’t include three of the most common birds of all—the pigeon, starling, and House Sparrow, but these are all on the western version. The Peterson CDs have from 4 to 8 different species on each track, so sometimes you have to listen to several songs you’re not particularly interested in in order to get to the one you actually want. These are published by Houghton Mifflin, and are available at Wild Birds Unlimited or can be ordered at any book store.

Harder to find and even more pricey at $75 is Bird Sounds of Canada, which includes over 600 species on 6 CDs, including virtually every species found in the Northland. This is a wonderfully convenient set, since each bird is on its own track—you can call up any song quickly and easily. This would be available mainly at specialty stores or catalogs—I bought mine through the American Birding Association.

There are also a couple of Peterson recordings that try to teach techniques for learning bird songs, called Birding by Ear. The first one includes 85 species, grouped by the kinds of songs, and has some helpful tips for figuring out bird songs. But this is the kind of recording few people would want to listen to more than once or twice, and it costs so I recommend checking it out of a library or borrowing it rather than buying it. Much more useful is Lang Elliott’s Know Your Bird Sounds. The two currently available each have only 35 species, but there are long recordings of a huge variety of vocalizations for each, and information about what each song or call means. Know Your Bird Sounds is my all-time favorite for the many sounds provided for common species, and at only $12.95 each, would be the perfect starting point for anyone interested in learning bird songs.