Mar 26, 2015 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2015

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Bird Song

A Carolina wren visits the backyard of a WBB reader.

As spring emerges across North America in all its wondrous ways, our backyard birds begin making more of their beautiful music. Here are 10 things you might not know about backyard bird songs.

10. Songs versus calls. There is a difference between a bird's song and its call or call notes. For the birds we call songbirds, singing serves two main purposes: to advertise an individual's availability as a mate, and to warn competitors to keep out of its territory. Songs are normally complex groups of notes performed during the breeding season. Calls are shorter, less complex vocalizations. They serve to communicate specific messages, such as the threat of a predator, a fledgling's begging call for food, or as a way to stay in contact with other members of a pair or flock.

9. He does the singing, usually. All songbirds, regardless of age or sex, utter call notes. But for most songbird species, it's the male who performs the "primary song," used by that species during the breeding season. This is true for thrushes, warblers, vireos, tanagers—most songbirds. Carolina wrens are an exception to this rule. Both sexes in this species will sing a duet from separate locations—a behavior thought to help cement the pair bond. Female cardinals and purple finches sing, too, so don't be too surprised if you hear a female in full song in your backyard this spring.

8. Nonvocal "songs" and "calls." Some birds use nonvocal sounds to communicate. Ruffed grouse drum their wings; woodpeckers drum loudly on hollow trees (and sometimes metal chimneys); and common nighthawks produce a fluttering whoosh sound with their primary wing feathers as they preform courtship dives. A hummingbird's hum comes from the motion of its wings as it flies and hovers.

7. The spring upswing. As daylight hours increase, so do a bird's hormones, causing it to sing profusely. Birdsong increases in late winter, and peaks about midsummer. The timing of breeding season vocalizations varies from north to south and east to west, and also varies among species. When breeding birds in southern California begin singing, spring is still a long way off for birds in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Once the onset of spring gets the territorial males started, the amount of singing can be impressive. How many times per day does a typical male songbird sing? Here are some examples: song sparrow, 2,305; black-throated green warbler, more than 3,000; red-eyed vireo, an astounding 22,197 times per day!

6. Where is it? Some singing birds perch in prominent palaces to broadcast their message. A male northern cardinal or American robin will sit on a treetop and sing for extended periods. But not all birds sing from exposed perches. Some prefer to sing from a concealed location, such as the middle of a thorny thicket or the inner branches of a tree. In these cases it can be hard to find the songster. Here are some tips for finding singing birds: 1) Listen carefully while turning your head from side to side. This helps your ears help your brain find the general direction of the sound. Cupping your hands behind your ears can help amplify soft or low-volume sounds. 2) Scan the obvious places first: treetops, shrubs, and prominent perches such as wires, bare snags, and roofs. 3) Listen while changing locations. This permits you to do a bit of aural "warmer, warmer, colder" sleuthing. 4) If all else fails, sit quietly, listen, and watch for movement.

5. Listen to the mockingbird. Do you have a northern mockingbird in your neighborhood? I have always loved to listen to mockers with a writing pad in my hand, noting the birds they imitate. It's an incredible rapid-fire quiz on bird calls and songs. Mockers will do several calls of the same bird in succession. Listen on summer nights during a full moon and you will likely hear a male mocker serenading his territory all night long.

4. Onomatopoeia and beyond. Some species say their names: chickadee-dee-dee, bob white, chachalaca. Other species are named for their songs or singing behavior, such as song sparrow, chipping sparrow, warbling vireo, gray catbird (mews like a cat), northern mockingbird (mimics other birds), screech-owl (whose song includes a soft, descending whinny, not really a screech), and saw-whet owl (sounds like a sharpening saw).

3. Mnemonics. Many bird watchers (and all bird field guides) use words and phrases to represent or describe bird songs and calls. Thus the California quail says Chi-ca-go; the Carolina wren says teakettle, teakettle, teakettle; and the olive-sided flycatcher says quick, three beers. In any field guide you'll see many of these mnemonic devices. These renditions of bird songs can be silly, serious, or strange, but the important thing is that they help you remember.

2. Technology is your friend. The Birding By Ear CDs by Walton and Lawson (Houghton Mifflin) are a helpful way to learn to identify birds by their sounds. There are also apps for your tablet, smartphone, or MP3 player that can make learning bird vocalizations fun. A few include Larkwire, Chirp!, iKnowBirdSongs, BirdTunes, and BirdJam. Digital editions of field guides offer bird songs for reference and verification.

1. Hear it, follow it, learn it. The best way to learn the songs and sounds of your backyard birds is to discover them for yourself. I've been bird watching for more than 40 years and I still discover birdsound mysteries each year that I am driven to solve by tracking down the singer. Sometimes I am surprised to find out which bird is making the strange sound—sometimes it's not even a bird! It is certainly easier to remember an unusual bird sound once I've tracked it down. Try to pay extra attention to the sounds in your yard this spring, and use some of the tips I've provided here. I think you'll enjoy it and maybe even learn a new sound or two.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018