Every year as spring migration begins, I get letters from readers who ask, “How can I learn bird songs?” Invariably I’ve recommended various collections of birds songs on CDs such as The Peterson Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America. And I’ve often used and recommended the hand held BirdSong Identiflyer.
Though these tools were the best for their time, they have shortcomings, especially when used afield. CDs require a cumbersome player, and the Identiflier plays only 10 species per audio card.
The latest and by far best bird song learning tool is an iTunes application — BirdTunes by natural sound recordist Lang Elliott. A Guide to the Songs and Calls of North American Birds covers 674 North American species of birds. You can browse an alphabetical list by first name (eastern phoebe), by last name (phoebe, eastern), or by group (flycatchers).
Each species includes multiple examples of songs and calls, and tracks can be set to play continuously. Continuous looping helps burn less familiar songs onto my brain. The birds that I hear only a few times each year can be difficult for me to recall each spring. So as I work, I play the songs that give me trouble for an hour at a time. The more I hear these songs, the more familiar they become.
The Blackburnian warbler, for example, includes seven tracks — six different songs and one set of alarm chips. And vocalizations come from various parts of the continent to give a feel for geographic variation.
The cerulean warbler features five different tracks from Arkansas, New York and Kentucky.
BirdTunes also has a visual component. Each species includes a small photo that, when touched, flips to a beautiful full-sized image, and a sonagram that graphically depicts each vocalization.
The quality of sound is excellent. I have played songs from my iPad through a microphone in a radio studio and listeners told me they heard it loud and clear.
The most pleasant surprise about BirdTunes is the price. CDs can run $20 to $30, and some systems cost more than $100. BirdTunes from the iTunes store is $9.99 and works with iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touch. It is the ultimate reference for North American bird songs.
But it is just a reference. If you want a tool that will actually teach bird songs, the best resources are Birding by Ear and More Birding by Ear (each $30, Houghton Mifflin). I’ve recommended these CDs before, and they continue to be the best instructional bird song learning tools I know.
Clearly, I love BirdTunes, but is there a good field guide app? There are several and I have not tried them all, but one I’ve found that exceeds all my expectations is iBird Pro 2.0 for the iPad, Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
The iBirdPro is everything a birder could want in a field guide. A few touches of the screen brings up any of more than 900 species of birds of North America, including Hawaii. Tap a photo and it flips to full screen. Another tap and you can see a slide show. Compare up to three similar species simultaneously.
The iBird Pro includes thousands of illustrations, both artwork and photographs. Each account includes a range map, a detailed description, and several audio files, though the selection of vocalizations is limited compared to BirdTunes.
Words can hardly do justice to the thoroughness of the iBird Pro. It sets a new standard for field guides and can be summarized in one word — remarkable. The iBird Pro does have two drawbacks. Its price is $30, and in a world of free and 99 cent apps, that is expensive. But as I write this, it’s on sale for $14.99.
When you realize iBird Pro provides more than any traditional field guide plus audio files, it’s a bargain even at $30.
The other problem is that it requires a huge amount of memory (1,010 MegaBytes) and takes hours to load.
If iBird Pro sounds overwhelming, a scaled back Field Guide to Common and Backyard Birds of North America is available for iPad (iBird Yard Plus, 307 MB, $2.99) and iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (iBird Backyard Plus, 110 MB, $1.99).