Bird songs everyone actually knows and sings

Early migrants began returning several weeks ago. Turkey vultures, killdeer, and phoebes were probably as befuddled by the late winter weather as we were. But by early April, we should be safe from any more extended cold snaps.

And that means the parade of returning migratory birds will accelerate every week.

Bird songs

To prepare for the return of neotropical migrants, it’s a good idea to review the voices of birds we’re likely to hear. The prospect of learning bird songs discourages many people. Learning bird songs is just too difficult, they say.

I think those people don’t give themselves enough credit. Most of us have heard many bird songs over the years, and we just don’t realize how many are quite familiar.

Learn their songs

For example, the “Caw!” of an American crow is probably the most familiar voice in both rural and urban backyards.

In wilder wetlands and urban parks two species of waterfowl are equally easy to recognize. Canada geese trumpet a deep, throaty, “honk-a-honk,” and mallards are the quintessential quacking duck.

Along streams, rivers, and lakes listen for a machine gun-like rattle. Often you’ll then see a belted kingfisher flying from perch to perch.

Turkeys, owls

In more wooded areas, listen for a wild turkey. Its gobble is exactly what you imagine. And where there are turkeys, there are barred owls. Its southern accent is obvious as it hoots, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all!”

In a few weeks when warblers return, listen for an ovenbird in a deciduous forest. Its “Teach-er! Teach-er! Teach-er!” is loud and hard to miss.

If you’ve ever visited the east coast on summer vacation, you’ve seen and heard a medium-sized, black-headed gull on the beach. After hearing its voice, you, too, would name it the laughing gull.

Sounds in the backyard

Closer to home, many easy-to-recognize sounds fill the backyard.
Mourning doves are named for their sorrowful voice: “Oo-ah, oo, oo, oo.” Mourning doves also produce a distinctive wing whistle when they take flight.
Chimney swifts inhabit towns and cities and fill the sky all day long. Their constant twittering chatter gives them away as they sweep the sky for insects.

Whistles and songs

Northern cardinals have extensive repertoires, but cardinal songs invariably include loud slurred whistles.
Eastern towhees clearly sing, “Drink your teee!”
Carolina wrens repeat a loud pure whistle, “Tea-kettle! Tea-kettle! Tea-kettle!”
Gray catbirds skulk about in dense shrubbery and reveal themselves with a feline-like “mew.”
And in particularly well-manicured backyards landscaped with conifers, listen for the high-pitched monotone trill of chipping sparrows.

Chuckle and trills

At feeders, red-bellied woodpeckers chuckle, and white-breasted nuthatches have a distinctly nasal, “Ank, ank, ank.!”

And in just a few weeks, when ruby-throated hummingbirds return, the drone of their whirring wings and rapid vocal squeaks are often heard before these tiny feathered jewels are seen.

And then there are the name-sayers. Named for the sound of their own voices, they are among the easiest bird songs to master.

Northern bobwhite speak as clearly as any bird. “Bob, Bob White!”

Making their presence known

At feeders, blue jays announced their presence with a loud, “Jay! Jay! Jay!”
Killdeer are common shorebirds that prefer grassy fields, lakeshores, and large expanses of mowed grass. On the ground or in flight, they call their own name — “Kill-dee! Kill-dee!” or “Dee-dee-dee!”

Another name-sayer is the eastern phoebe, a nondescript flycatcher that often nests under a porch roof. When perched on a power line or tree branch, it often pumps its tail downward. Its song is a repetitious, buzzy, “fee-bee.”

Ultimate giveaway

Finally, Carolina and black-capped chickadees are look-alikes best distinguished by range and voice.

Imagine a line running from Philadelphia to Kansas. Though there is a zone of overlap. North of the line, black-capped chickadees prevail; south of the line is Carolina country. Voice is an even better distinguishing characteristic.

Black-caps sing “fee-bee” in a sweet pure tone unlike the phoebe’s buzzy notes. Carolinas sing “fee-bee, fee-bay.” A call note of both species is the ultimate giveaway, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”

If you’ve always wished you could identify birds by ear, you can. You already know more than you imagined.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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