How to Learn a Bird Song

IdentiflyerI have one of those “Identiflyer” thingies.  You slide in  a card, push a button, and hear a sound.  The name and picture of the sound-maker is on the card right next to the button you pushed.  It’s one way to learn bird songs and calls.  I also own the Peterson CD “Birding by Ear” on which a voice announces the name of a bird, then you hear the song.  Both methods are efficient at presenting you with plenty of songs in a short amount of time.  I like the Identiflyer better because it has pictures and I can choose which bird I want to hear when.  I’ve actually only listened to the Peterson CD once.  Too many sounds all at once:  bird song overload!

Birding by EarTruth be told, though, neither of the tools was highly effective for my learning style.  I need time to let a new song sink in.  I need context, too, not just an isolated sound on a CD.  Even the picture-plus-sound on the Indentiflyer was not enough to teach me.  I need to be there, experience the habitat, watch the bird making the sound.  I need to watch the bird fly from tree to tree, take a stand, and start singing again.  All that varied sensory input helps make the song stick in my memory – fully attached to the sound-maker.

I learned a new song just this spring using my own three-step method.

Step One:  Isolate it.  There are so many songs and sounds in spring.  The day I heard this new song, I had to separate it from the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, crows, and kinglets.  There were even some spring peepers singing off in the distance, and the dry leaves beneath my feet were crunching away.  I had to force myself to ignore all these familiar sounds and focus in on the new one.

Step Two.  Locate it.  It isn’t always easy to figure out where the sound is coming from.  But with persistence, and hands cupped behind the ears, you can usually figure it out.  I was lucky this time:  I didn’t have to go off the trail to find the source of the sound.  That doesn’t mean it was easy, though.  I scanned the trees for-seeming-ever until I saw movement in the direction of the sound.

Step Three.  Be patient.  It actually took me a couple of days of hunting and listening hard to discover that it was a red-bellied woodpecker making the sound.  And then it took me a couple of times listening and watching him sing to truly learn it.

Red-bellied Woodpecker by Nature55 at Flickr.comAfter I was sure I had the red-bellied woodpecker song fixed in my brain, I checked it on the Identiflyer.  I was right!  You can learn more about the red-bellied woodpecker (and even hear a sound clip, if you want) here:  Many thanks to Jayne for letting me use her photo of a red-bellied woodpecker.  Click on it to go to her amazing photostream on

5 thoughts on “How to Learn a Bird Song

  1. The Peterson CD.’s don’t really work for me but I do like to use them as a reference.-I have a program that lets you see the bird while you hear the song.-You can even take a multiple choice matching test.

  2. Good advice and a good lesson on bird song.
    I have been particularly attuned this spring to bird calls. I try to see the bird making the sound, but usually can’t. I have been wishing I knew how to id birds by their calls.

  3. Great tips. I have a CD, but cannot take it out with on the trail. The Identiflyer looks like a great idea. I wonder if it would attract a bird?? 🙂

  4. Pingback: Mothers' Day at Bentley Sanctuary « A Passion for Nature

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