Birding by ear: Getting started

The best bird watchers usually aren’t. That is, they aren’t only skilled bird watchers, they also tend to be excellent bird listeners.  Here are some easy ways you can hone your listening skills to help you find more birds next time you’re in the field.

Most birders can name an admirable (or even enviable) birder with a seemingly super-human ability to find and ID birds. Perhaps a local expert or a rising young birding superstar who always finds more than their fair share of good birds? Maybe you yourself can think of someone who fits the bill; a trip leader or field guide author you’ve had the pleasure of spending time with in the field? Whoever they are, they find birds. Lots of birds. Lots of rare birds.

So how do they do it? More often than not, the secret of their success almost always involves using their ears at least as much as their eyes to find and ID birds.  If you’re looking to boost your bird finding abilities, here are a some pointers to help you find more birds with your ears than your binoculars.

1. Focus first on finding birds by ear, not identifying them by ear.
Being good at birding by ear does not require one to ID all birds by sound alone! This common misconception – that “birding by ear” means “ID everything by sound alone” – prevents far too many birders from exploiting their sense of hearing to locate birds that would otherwise go unnoticed. Simply put, any efforts to listen for birds, especially for something “different”, will focus your attention and your binoculars on 2, 3 maybe 10 times as many birds as you would notice by sight alone.

2. Study bird sounds. A glut of resources exist on the web for learning about bird sounds and identification. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know where to start! The better approach? Study the birds you find when out in the field, and learn to recognize (locally) common species. Master the usual suspects, and you’ll be well on your way to picking out uncommon species during your outings. Working through species a group at a time is an easy way to learn bird sounds in bite-sized chunks.

Want more? That’s when you turn to commercially available CDs and more web resources like xeno-canto.org, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AllAboutBirds.org and Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.  Note that you can browse taxonomic groups on AllAboutBirds.org, and therefore easily compare related species, e.g., the warblers: Wood-warblers (Order: Passeriformes, Family: Parulidae).

Want even more? Don’t just listen to audio recordings, visualize them too!  I recommend Raven Lite, which allows you to see spectrograms of the recordings, play them at slowed speeds, and do some limited editing (although Audacity is my preferred editor). Check out Earbirding.com for more resources on reading spectrograms. Importantly, don’t just listen to recordings over and over! Make sure you also read about what aspects of the calls or songs are key to making an ID.   For example, when learning to differentiate Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warbler calls, if you aren’t thinking about “type A” and “type B” songs, you’re not doing it right! 😉

3. Focus on groups of birds. As mentioned above, you can listen to recordings of entire taxonomic groups easily using AllAboutBirds.org. Likewise, you can find ways focus on studying the sounds of species found in specific habitats (e.g. marsh birds) or that make similar sounds (e.g. Pine Warbler vs Dark-eyed Junco vs Worm-eating Warbler vs Chipping Sparrow). For this, you can make playlists using a copy of your favorite audio CDs saved to a computer or MP3 player.

4. Lastly, don’t go it alone. Learning in groups is usually more fun and more effective! Be sure to take advantage of local bird clubs, email lists and facebook groups to find others interested in taking their birding skills to the next level. In the end, encouraging your birding friends to improve their listening skills will ultimately add to your shared birding experiences.


Resources

David Sibley recently posted the first in a series of posts on learning to “bird by ear.” Check out his website and follow him on facebook for the rest of the series.

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