Learning bird songs and why they ‘sing’

red winged black bird

Each week a new group of birds passes through the yard as they wing their way north. Some stay to nest, while others continue their journey.

So far, I’ve welcomed killdeer, woodcock, phoebes, field sparrows, chipping sparrows, and purple finches. They are familiar old friends. I recognized each initially by voice.

Learning to identify birds by their voices is a great way to improve your confidence in your knowledge of nature.

Most people don’t even try. They think it’s too hard. But it’s actually easier than you think. Everyone reading this , for example, knows at least a few birds by song.

A mourning dove’s soft “coo”, a turkey’s explosive “gobble,” and a crow’s “caw” are universally recognized.

Now is the time to add more easy bird voices to your repertoire.

In late April and May, warblers will return and add to the confusion, so let’s add a few now to your bird song list.


Eastern phoebes are drab backyard flycatchers that often nest under the protective cover of porch roofs, often atop a light fixture.

It repeats its buzzy song, “Fee-bee!” sometimes for minutes. A high-pitched monotone trill tells me that chipping sparrows are back.

It often flies from treetop to treetop on the perimeter of the yard as it sings.

Field sparrows sing a series of clear whistles that rapidly accelerate into a trill. The pace reminds me of a bouncing ping-pong ball. Eastern towhees speak English and even young children can learn their song.

They often exclaim “Drink your tea!” as they perch near the tops of thickets. Along wet meadows and marshes, aptly named red-winged blackbirds sing a loud, noisy, and discordant —”Konk-ka-reee! And brown-headed cowbirds often sing near my feeders.

The male’s voice is a liquid gurgling sound. When you hear a series of short phrases, each different, but repeated only once, search thickets and brambles.

Eventually, you’ll hear a distinctive call note — “Mew!” — that confirms the identity of a gray catbird. A similar sound with phrases repeated twice indicates a brown thrasher.

And if the phrases are repeated three or more times, the singer is probably a Mockingbird. Master these nine simple songs to up your bird song list to 12 before warblers and vireos arrive.

And even some of them are quite easy to learn, but that’s fodder for another column.

Why birds sing

The next question is why birds sing in the first place. It’s to communicate. The message depends upon who hears the song.

Male birds establish and defend a territory from other males of the same species by singing from perches around and within the territory. In this sense, bird song is a “keep-out” signal.

Other males know that if they violate a territory’s boundary, they will be attacked. So they respect territory owners.

The second and equally important function of male song is to attract females. It says, “I’m available, I’ve got a nice territory, I can provide for you, let’s be a couple.”


Though some might call such vocalizations love songs, biologists prefer to keep emotions out of the equation.

Song is an essential part of the pair-bonding process. Both male and female birds also vocalize to communicate every-day information. Ornithologists label these sounds “calls.”

Short, nonmusical chips, chirps, and whistles uttered year-round convey information about location, food sources, and social position.

Other calls rally broods and indicate alarm, danger, aggression, and annoyance.

In human terms, calls are the vocabulary of daily conversation. Vocalizing may seem a dangerous way to communicate because it draws attention to the singer.

Hawks and other predators might use sound to zero in on tasty songbirds. But part of the beauty of voice is its ephemeral nature. Sound leaves no scent or footprints.

Once uttered, bird songs and calls vanish into thin air, so predators can’t use sound to locate vocalizing birds. And if danger threatens, birds simply stop talking until the threat passes.

Birds seem to sing more on warm sunny days, so step outside for a few minutes each day and listen. Then enjoy the satisfaction that comes with learning a few new songs on your own.


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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. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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