Learning the Songs of Local Birds

Apr 11, 2018

Credit Chad Horwedel / https://bit.ly/2EAVGzq

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, bird song in your neighborhood has been steadily picking up over the last several weeks. Bird hormones are surging in response to the lengthening days, producing a variety of behavioral and physiological changes to prepare them for breeding season, including ever lustier singing. So I want to take this opportunity to offer an early spring tune-up for your birding ears, because once the long distance songbird migrants come flooding back next month, the degree of difficulty will be much higher.

The loudest and most persistent singers right now are your year-round resident birds like the Tufted Titmouse. Their incessant “here here here” song echoes through neighborhoods everywhere, except Nantucket.  Titmice are timid around water and have not managed to catch a ferry, which is why they have yet to colonize Massachusetts’ furthest offshore outpost. Here’s a typical song.


While their vocalizations are fairly simple – they don’t exactly sing in the way you might think of bird song – titmice are like jazz musicians, frequently improvising calls and tones I’ve never heard in my 30+ years of listening to them. I may devote an entire bird report to titmouse sounds one of these days. For now, here is their standard call – listen for a cardinal and a crow in the background.


The loudest of the loud of your backyard singers in the Carolina Wren – the little bird with the big voice. Here is a classic song  - a three-syllable “teakettle teakettle teakettle”, with this bird’s mate responding with a rolling trill.


Many Carolina Wren songs only have two syllables, and others vary in which syllables are accented. But the tone, intensity, and basic pattern are all you need to identify it as coming from a Carolina Wren. Here’s a two syllable version.


For some reason, one of the most difficult songs for people to learn is one of our most common year round birds, the American Goldfinch. They have one of the longest singing periods of any species, from early spring through late summer, when they finally get down to breeding, and they can be found just about anywhere. Despite this, in my years of training people to identify bird songs, this species has flummoxed folks the most. They sing a jumbled series of trills and buzzy phrases…and have a variety of calls, including a classic flight call that my college ornithology professor described as “potato chips”.


If you’re lucky, like we have been over at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, you can hear one of our more beautiful early spring songsters, the White-throated Sparrow. These birds winter sparsely here on the Cape, then migrate through in April and early May to more northerly breeding sites. Here is a typical song with a high introductory note stepping down to a series of lower notes. And here is the equally common ascending version.


These are obviously just a few of the many species filling the air with song this spring, but you have to start somewhere. These days we have an embarrassment of riches in the many apps and websites to help you along as you learn to identify birds by ear, but if you really want to internalize them, there is no substitute for spending time in the field tracking down singing birds. Knowing birds by sight only gets you a small fraction of the way toward knowing the birds around you. I think you’ll find that learning bird song will open a whole new world of outdoor awareness.