Guide to Bird Songs and Noises

Birds make a wide variety of sounds and calls to communicate, display dominance, find mates, defend territories, signal danger, and more. Learning bird sounds takes time and practice, but being able to identify the common vocalizations of local bird species helps birdwatchers better appreciate avian behavior and interactions. This guide covers the major categories of bird vocalizations and provides tips on learning and memorizing songs and calls.

Bird Song and Bird Calls: What’s the Difference?

Bird songs and bird calls serve different functions for birds. Songs are complex vocalizations used mostly by male birds in the breeding season to attract mates and defend territories. Songs tend to be melodic, with frequency variations and multiple notes.

Calls are simpler vocalizations used year-round for a variety of purposes, including warning others of danger, claiming food, defending territory, communicating with their young, and maintaining the flock. Calls are shorter, repetitive, and more urgent-sounding.

So in summary:

  • Bird songs are longer, more complex vocalizations used in the breeding season, mainly by males.
  • Bird calls are shorter, simpler vocalizations heard year-round used for various purposes.

Both songs and calls are important communication tools for birds. Distinguishing between bird songs and calls will help birders understand avian behavior better.

Categories of Bird Vocalizations

Ornithologists classify bird vocalizations into several main categories based on their purpose:

Bird Songs

As noted above, songs are longer, more complex vocalizations primarily used in the breeding season. Types of bird songs include:

  • Dawn song: Long, complex songs performed by males at dawn during the breeding season. Dawn songs mark territory and attract potential mates.
  • Advertising song: A loud, conspicuous song used to attract a mate and defend territory. Male birds often sing advertising songs repeatedly from prominent perches.
  • Quiet song: A softer, less conspicuous version of the advertising song sung after a mate has been attracted.
  • Singing in counterpoint: Alternating songs sung by competing neighboring male birds. The males sing continuously to claim the territory.

Bird Calls

Calls are short, simple vocalizations used year-round for various purposes:

  • Contact calls: Short vocalizations used to communicate among flock members, especially during flight. Keeps the flock together.
  • Alarm/mobbing calls: Loud, urgent calls that signal danger or threaten predators. Given to scare predators away.
  • Flight calls: Brief calls given in flight. May communicate a bird’s identity or maintain flocks.
  • Begging calls: Noisy vocalizations by nestlings begging for food from parents.
  • Distress calls: Harsh, grating calls that signal injury, pain, or capture by predators.
  • Food-associated calls: Special calls some species use near food sources like feeding young or defending food finds.
  • Social and non-vocal sounds: Bill snapping, wing whirring, drumming on surfaces. Used for courtship, communication, territory defense.

Identifying Key Characteristics

When trying to distinguish songs and calls, listen for:

  • Length – Songs tend to be longer and more complex than calls.
  • Pitch – Songs may have more pitch changes and harmonies than the monotone or slightly variable pitch of calls.
  • Melody – Songs may sound more musical and melodious compared to the simpler, repetitive notes of calls.
  • Purpose – Songs are used for attracting mates and territory while calls have functions like alarms and communication.
  • Time of year – Songs occur more frequently during the breeding season while calls are heard year-round.

Tips for Learning Bird Sounds

Identifying birds by sound takes patience and practice. Here are some tips to help learn bird songs and calls:

Focus on Common Local Species

Don’t try to memorize every bird sound right away. Start by learning the common vocalizations of birds in your area first. Local field guides often include audio clips of bird sounds to help with identification.

Use Audio Recordings and Apps

Listen to high-quality recordings of bird vocalizations, both songs and calls. Many websites and apps like Merlin Bird ID and eBird have extensive libraries of bird sounds. Replay short clips frequently to memorize them.

Note the Pattern and Rhythm

Pay attention to the pattern, speed, rhythm, and pitch of vocalizations. Note whether they are a jumble of notes, a trill, whistle, or buzz. Songs have more musical complexity than simple repetitive calls.

Practice Birding by Ear

Go out birdwatching and try identifying birds only by sound. Confirm the ID by locating the visual bird. Apps can help you learn in situ. Over time, you will improve your auditory birding skills.

Memorize Mnemonics

Mnemonic phrases that mimic the song or call can help jog your memory. For example, the chickadee call is often remembered as “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee”. Come up with mnemonics for frequent vocalizations.

Learn One Group at a Time

Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to learn all bird families at once. Focus on mastering one family, like warblers, sparrows, or woodpeckers, before moving on to another related group.

Use Flashcards and Quizzes

Make DIY flashcards with audio clips or use a birding app with quizzes to repeatedly test yourself until you have mastered the more common bird sounds. Drill frequently.

With some dedicated practice in the field and using audio recordings, birders can gradually learn to identify many birds by ear alone. Pay extra attention to frequent local species first before tackling less common birds.

Bird Song Identification Guide

Here is an overview of what to listen for to identify some common bird song families:


Many finch songs are rapid, bubbly warbles, chirps, and twitters. Notes are repeated in fast succession without pauses. Songs can be melodic or jumbled.

  • House finch songs are variable but often cheerful-sounding warbles ending in a flourish.
  • Goldfinch songs are high, wavy twittering notes. Their call is a pleasant musical “per-chick-o-ree”.
  • Pine siskins produce fast trills, buzzes, and chatters. Songs are jumbled and chattery.


Sparrow songs tend to be more repetitive and simple. Marks territory with repeated phrases.

  • Chipping sparrow sings a crisp, staccato trill of uniform chips.
  • Song sparrow songs are melodic, rising and falling, ending with a buzz or trill.


Warblers produce elaborate songs and colorful trills, particularly during migration and breeding season.

  • Yellow warbler male sings a sweet “sweet sweet I’m so sweet” song.
  • Common yellowthroat has a loud, repetitive “witchity witchity witchity” song.
  • American redstart song is a rapid string of high-pitched musical notes.


Blackbird songs are chaotic jumbles of squeaks, squawks, and gurgles. The red-winged blackbird is a common example.

  • Red-winged blackbird sings a “konk-a-ree” song, with varied notes and flourishes.
  • Grackles produce grating, metallic rattling calls and screeches.


Woodpeckers vocalize with sharp, loud “peek” calls that help advertise territory. Songs are fast staccato series of sharp notes.

  • Downy woodpeckers sing a sharp, high-pitched “pik!” call.
  • Northern flickers make a loud, repeating call that sounds like “wicka-wicka-wicka”.

Crows and Jays

Crows and jays have loud, rasping “caw” calls. Blue jays make a wide range of cries, whistles, squeaks, and gurgles.

  • American crows give a familiar “caw caw” territorial and flock call.
  • Blue jay makes squeaky, rasping mixed cries along with mimicry.
  • Steller’s jays make frequent, loud screeching noises.


Chickadees have high-pitched “dee-dee” calls. Their familiar vocalization is a plaintive-sounding “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”.

  • Black-capped chickadee sings a namesake “chick-a-dee-dee” song.
  • Carolina chickadee’s song is a faster, higher-pitched, more accelerating “chick-a-dee-dee”.

With practice over time, birders can learn to identify many common bird species by categorizing their songs and calls according to family. Pay attention to characteristics like repetition, trills, buzzes, and pitch when trying to ID bird sounds.

Tips for Memorizing Bird Songs

Bird songs and calls can be challenging to memorize at first. Use these memory techniques to help learn them:

Focus on Mnemonics

Come up with mnemonics that mimic the song’s rhythm and pitch. Associate chickadee with “chick-a-dee-dee”, tufted titmouse with “peter-peter”, and common yellowthroat with “witchity-witchity”. These phrases help jog your memory.

Note the Pattern

Pay attention to whether the song ascends or descends, speeds up or slows down, consists of a few notes or a complicated sequence. Visualizing these patterns makes them more memorable.

Quiz Yourself

Test yourself repeatedly on bird song ID using audio clips. Apps like Larkwire for bird sounds have quizzes to reinforce memorization through active recall.

Link Song to Bird Behavior

Connect the vocalization to the bird’s behavior. Remember that dawn song marks territory, short contact calls keep flocks together, and loud alarm calls signal danger.

Use Mnemonic Devices

Associate bird songs with mnemonic devices such as acronyms (“Black-capped Chickadee” becomes “BC Chickadee”) and acrostics (using the song notes to make a word, like “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” for the white-throated sparrow song).

Visualize the Bird Singing

Picture the bird producing the sound, whether perched on a branch or flying overhead. Having a mental image tied to the song will help solidify it in your memory.

Group by Family

Memorize similar species together like catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds who all have elaborate mimicry songs. Songs from the same family often have comparable qualities.

Be Patient

Don’t get frustrated! Learning bird vocalizations takes a lot of time and practice. Stick with frequently heard local birds first before tackling more exotic species. Repeated exposure is key.

With regular active practice – especially testing yourself frequently, paying attention to patterns, and creating mnemonics – birders can master bird song recognition.

Unusual Bird Sounds and Noises

Beyond typical songs and calls, birds can make a variety of bizarre and fascinating sounds:


Some birds expertly mimic sounds in their environment. Mockingbirds, starlings, and lyrebirds mimic other bird species along with mechanical noises.


Woodpeckers drum loudly and rapidly on trees both to establish territory and excavate nest sites. The pattern produces a distinctive rolling rhythm.


Some bird groups like shorebirds use whistling calls to communicate. Killdeer have a shrill, piercing whistle call for instance.

Territorial Sounds

Birds may make aggressive sounds like bill snapping to defend territories. Belted kingfisher makes a dry, rattling, machine gun-like call when threatened.

Mechanical Sounds

Birds near human habitation cleverly mimic manmade noises. Sapsuckers, woodpeckers, and northern mockers incorporate car alarms, phone rings, and squeaky gates into their songs.

Strange Calls

Birds can produce bizarre sounds unlike typical vocalizations. Blue jays are adept at making gurgling pops while common nighthawks have an eerie, nasal peent call.

Non-vocal Sounds

Birds can produce sounds without their vocal organs. Loons yodel using distinctive tremolo calls aided by air sacs in their neck and head. Snipe make a distinctive “winnowing” sound using specialized tail feathers.

Birders should listen and watch for these less common sounds that add diversity to avian vocalizations. Unusual noises can help identify tricky bird species. With time spent in the field, birders can master identifying a diverse array of bird sounds.

Beginner’s Guide to Common Bird Noises

For beginners trying to identify bird sounds, start by learning these common noises:

Dawn Chorus

The melodic outburst of birdsong at dawn as males sing to attract mates and defend territories.


Short, high-pitched vocalizations like sparrow chips, finch tweets, and chickadee dee-dees. Often used for contact calls.


The familiar “caw caw caw” cry of crows. Also given by ravens, rooks, jays, and magpies. Serves various purposes.


Noisy jumbles of calls like those of kingfishers, bobolinks, and blackbirds. Insect-like in quality.


The loud knocking of woodpeckers on tree trunks using their beaks. Rolls rapidly to communicate.


The deep “hoo hoo” call of owls. Unique to each owl species. Often territorial.


Harsher, louder calls like those of jays and Macaws. Often given in alarm to mob predators.


A musical, trembling call like that of the dark-eyed junco. Frequently melodic.


High, wavering calls like those of shorebirds. May be loud like a killdeer or soft like a dove coo.

Wing Whistles

Caused by air moving over specialized wing feathers in flight, like the wings of ducks or snipe.

Learning to distinguish these common noises will give beginners a foundation for starting to identify birds by ear and interpret avian behavior. With time and practice, birders can expand their recognition abilities.


Identifying birds by sound is a valuable skill for birdwatchers to develop. Mastering bird songs and calls allows birders to detect hidden birds, helps document them for surveys, aids in counting and monitoring, and gives insight into avian behavior.

Start by learning common local bird vocalizations first before expanding to more exotic species. Use audio recordings, mnemonics, flashcards, and frequent quizzing to commit sounds to memory. Over time, patience and practice will allow birders to identify many birds by ear alone.

Avian sounds add beauty and interest to the natural world. Whether waking to a joyous dawn chorus or hearing the relaxing evening cooing of mourning doves, bird vocalizations give birding an extra dimension. Learn to interpret their language and birding adventures become even more rewarding.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bird Songs and Calls

Here are answers to some common questions about identifying bird vocalizations:

Why do birds sing?

Birds sing to communicate and interact. Male birds sing to defend territories and attract mates in breeding season. Birds also sing to signal other birds, defend resources, or warn of predators.

What is dawn chorus?

Dawn chorus is the loud chorus of birdsong at first light. Males sing to mark territory and attract mates. Songs are loud, long, and complex.

How can I identify bird songs?

Identify bird songs by noting characteristics like length, complexity, pitch, repetition, trills, etc. Compare to known songs in your area. Apps, recordings, and mnemonics help in learning.

What’s the difference between bird calls and songs?

Bird calls are short, simple vocalizations used for alarms, communication, food bonding, etc. Songs are longer, more melodic vocalizations mainly used in breeding.

Why are bird songs so complex?

Bird songs likely evolved complexity to attract mates and defend territories. More complex songs demonstrate fitness and intelligence to compete with other males.

How do birds make sounds without vocal cords?

Specialized feathers, beaks, buzzing of feathers, air sacs, and other adaptations allow some birds to make sounds without vocal organs.

Can birds mimic human speech?

A few bird species can mimic human speech to varying degrees, including mynah birds, crows, parrots, lyrebirds, mockingbirds, and others. They have excellent mimicry skills.

How can I record bird sounds?

Use a smartphone app, specialized recorder, or video camera to record bird vocalizations. Get as close as possible for clear recordings. Include photos to confirm ID.

What time of day do birds sing the most?

Birds sing the most at dawn and early morning as they seek mates and defend territory. Evening can also be active with twilight calls. Daytime is quieter.

I hope this overview helps explain the wide range of bird vocalizations. Let me know if you have any other bird song or call questions!