Tips for learning birdsongs?
April 21, 2014 7:52 AM   Subscribe

The birds are back in town, and I wake up early enough to hear their songs before the traffic drowns them out. I'm no birder--I don't think I can identify any bird by its call, and only the five most "identifiable" birds by sight (and I'm probably wrong). What apps (iOS) and websites do you recommend to learn bird songs?

Ideally, I'd like something that 1) can be focused on New England (or the northeast), but includes other regions I can audition when traveling, 2) can be set to order by prevalence (I'd like to know what the birds in my neighborhood are first and foremost, not the rare blue-crested lobster hawk that only lives on Mount Shawmut), and 3) has a game/ear training component, not just an index of sounds I can trigger. I have a book of birds I can consult to learn more, but it would be nice if the app (if it's an app) has some data on the bird, not just its call.

Paid is OK, but free or cheep (see what I did there?) is great.

posted by Admiral Haddock to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
This one is more geared towards IDing birds by sight, but its great at doing so. It does have a ton of bird calls too, so after you ID a bird that you can see, you can learn it's song: Cornell's Merlin.
posted by duckstab at 8:01 AM on April 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had a few birders I know recommend iBird as being very good, in terms of field apps and having a lot of different useful functions.

These aren't apps, but I've also had good luck using two different sets of bird-ID CDs:
A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)


Lang Elliot's Know Your Bird Sounds I (city birds) & II (country birds). I ripped the CDs and listen to the mp3s on my phone. If I'm going out to specifically birdwatch, I'll bring the books with me, and cue up the tracks after spotting a bird. Lang has a great mellow voice, mimics the bird calls, gives some identification notes and mnemonic devices, and then each track has samples of individual birds' calls.

I'm not 100% there yet on ear-identification, but these have been really helpful for me so far. I can ID more birds by sight than ear, so I feel ya on this one! It does take a while.

P.S. YAY for birds being back in town! It finally feels like spring to me now, thanks to waking up to the morning bird chorus. :)
posted by cardinality at 8:10 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've gotten better at birdsongs over the years and the thing that has helped me most is having a feeder where I can see the birds as they're making the songs. I'm with you in that I would really like an app that would list the birds that were the likely local birds first and skip the rare birds most of the time, but I don't know one. The app I use, iBird Pro, is not cheap but my favorite thing about it as far as birdsongs is that it has a soundalike option. So you can start by searching for a bird and play its calls (and they usually have a collection of songs, not just one) and then you can link to birds that sound similar which can be helpful. It's also got a lot of photos, habitat info and etc. Often you can get pretty location-specific bird books (or sometimes little one-sheets with super common birds) that can be good for getting used to knowing what's around.

Also just to be a pill, the apps that play birdsongs are fine to use for "what the heck was that bird I heard" but people are tetchy about using them in the field where they might confuse birds and annoy birders. The Nature Blog has a good outline of the five most popular apps and mentions this at the end.
posted by jessamyn at 8:15 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been wondering about this myself!

Waaaay down in the comments of the blog review jessamyn linked to, someone helpfully recommends:



I'm off to download them right now....
posted by jbenben at 8:51 AM on April 21, 2014

iBird is definitely my favorite birding app, and iBird Yard Plus (for the backyard birder) is currently on sale for 99 cents for Android, $2.99 for iOS. It has birdsongs AND similar songs for each bird so you can differentiate.

iKnow Bird Songs is a flashcard app for bird songs. It's good, but it's also $10. If you happen to catch it on sale, I'd pick it up, but otherwise it's a bit expensive for what it does.

(I tried the Audubon app and it just ATE memory and battery on my phone, iBird is much more mobile friendly, although the navigation is not totally intuitive at first.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:57 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Larkwire is good for ear training, and you can buy portions of it by region and by how common the birds are (e.g., top 25 birds in your area; essential birds of your region; all land birds of your region, etc.) iBird is great as a general birding app.
posted by pemberkins at 9:24 AM on April 21, 2014

Birding by call is really hard, and you won't be able to verify whether you're correct or not until you're really good at it without also seeing the bird, so I'd recommend learning to identify birds by sight as well. I'm pretty good with California birds (especially the ones that live around my house), but there's still only a few I can ID by call alone. Crows, a couple hawk species, acorn woodpeckers, great horned owls.

The way to learn, whether by call or by sight, is to just go hang out somewhere where birds are with your book/app and watch the birds for a while. Like anything, just practice.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:29 AM on April 21, 2014

So, this isn't an app, but I've been recently enjoying The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma. The book comes with a CD that includes examples of birdsongs, and it's helped me identify the most common songs I hear in the Boston area. There's lots of information there about what it is to really listen to birds, and that perspective has helped me hear and identify birds and their songs beyond what is covered in the book. This is a great piece of science writing and a great reference about birds as well. Highly recommended!
posted by cubby at 9:59 AM on April 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with Cardinality above - iBird is a great app.
It has helped me a lot with identifiying bird songs. I can play the bird song on my phone, and I have even had some birds on the lake look over at me as I play their bird song on the app.
posted by Flood at 10:00 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

iBirdPro is the jam.
posted by amoeba at 1:47 PM on April 21, 2014

Nthing the iBird suggestion! There are (or were, last I looked) several variants of the app available. The one I have and use regularly is iBird Yard, but you will probably want to check and see which version is best for your location, etc. Of course I am speaking only from personal experience here, but it has been fun and basically effortless learning to at least recognize the most likely type of bird you are hearing. It is pretty awesome being able to, for instance, be standing in my kitchen and be all "ooh I hear a hummingbird!" and getting to spot it in the garden!
posted by aecorwin at 4:44 PM on April 21, 2014

A side note: when memorizing, assign words or phrases or even images. You'll find somewhat standard word/phrases in a bird guide if you need help, but it's way more useful to come up with your own while using these listening guides people listed above.

For example, a cardinal has one call that, to me, always sounds like: "scrr-unchIE! scr-unchIE-scr-unchIE-scr-unchIE-scr-UNCHIE-SCR-UNCHIE" because I would always notice it while doing my hair.
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:45 PM on April 21, 2014

Surely someone is developing a Shazam/SoundHound type thing for bird calls, right? I heard a lot of unfamiliar birds while traveling this weekend and would have paid good money for an app to identify them.
posted by bink at 11:00 AM on April 22, 2014

I'm glad cubby recommended the Kroodsma book, it's fantastic! Nodding my head over here at the comment that it's a great piece of science writing.

I worked on an avian research study (did the mapping for it) in college, so this area is one of my special interests. To answer bink's question, somewhat, check out this link, about the development of an app called WeBIRD. It explains a little bit about the difficulty in making a Shazam for birdsong identification. (I would shell out some cash for it, too!)
One aspect of avian vocalization is that most species exhibit substantial variation in their songs (and calls). Moreover, this variation is structured geographically. There are several biological explanations for this phenomenon (an important one is natal philopatry), many of which may also explain how human speech dialects are also structured geographically. Thus, a Tufted Titmouse in WI does not sound like a Tufted Titmouse in ME. Similar, yes, but in many species (like the White-crowned Sparrow along the west coast) the differences can be considerable.

How does this affect WeBIRD? If you query a song of a species for which there is no corresponding entry in the WeBIRD database, you will obviously not obtain a match. Alternatively, if you have a song in the database that is “reasonably similar” to your query, you will obtain at least an indication of a match. Once a candidate match is made, WeBIRD evaluates the statistical significance of the match (this is the most important step). The level of significance will vary depending on the degree of similarity between the query and specific database entry. Therein lies the problem: if no “reasonably similar” songs exist in the database, accurate identification of the species is impossible (or at least statistically unlikely). Given that substantial geographic variation in bird vocalizations exists makes this a formidable problem.
I had the opportunity to meet some of the avian bioaccoustical research folks at the Powdermill Nature Reserve & research center back in college, and we got to see an example of how they recorded the songs of the birds they (briefly) captured as part of their banding program. They are working with Cornell, and from what I remember, were using their data more for population studies/management. I could definitely see the creation of a sort of crowd-sourced vocalizations database being part of the solution to the problem, provided there was some sort of quality-control process involved. I would think that with, say, a "starter" database with quality data like what PARC is producing, and with the addition of crowd-sourced ancillary data, that would solve what the WeBIRD developer is describing. Cornell and Audubon already do the backyard birding/citizen science stuff, so why not expand it outward with new technology?

If you really want to get your nerd on and have some older computer gear laying around, you can even build your own bird mic and analyze your results using free software. Here are some spectrograms of migration calls recorded with this method.

Some birds are even bilingual!
posted by cardinality at 8:02 PM on April 25, 2014 [40 favorites]

I found Birding by Ear to be very useful. It's part of the same series as the previously mentioned "Field Guide to Bird Songs" but the key difference is that Birding by Ear is a pedagogical audio book, not a reference. The bird calls are grouped by similarity and a narrator discusses similarities, differences, and tricks to remember the different calls after listening to each one. The time spent discussing each call means that only the most common birds are discussed. It works well as an orientation guide.

Another resource is Xeno Canto, which has contributed bird song recordings from all over the world. There are often many, many contributed calls for a single species, so you can pick recordings that were done close to you and overcome the geographical variability problem to some extent. You can also get some idea of how common/rare specific species are by the number of contributed recordings of each.

For a while I was using recordings from Xeno Canto, google image searches, and a flashcard program called Anki to learn to identify birds by sight and sound. I used Anki because it's easy to make flash cards based on sound or images as well as text. In order to learn birds in rough order of most common to least common, I started with the species from Xeno Canto that had the most contributed recordings in my region. Every few weeks I'd add a bunch of birds, and then set Anki to introduce a new bird every few days. It's work, but you end up with a flash card deck that's pretty well tailored to what you want. Anki is available as a desktop application, on iPhones and on Android.
posted by ngc4486 at 7:22 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not sure about bird song, but is what I always used when staring at the huge oak outside my third floor window.
posted by cthuljew at 5:21 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Someone just pointed me to this website which has a bunch of images and common songs for a lot of common (to Minnesota) birds. I have about 75% of them where I am in New England too. Just a simple page but good if you're already stuck at a desk.
posted by jessamyn at 8:27 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surely someone is developing a Shazam/SoundHound type thing for bird calls, right? I heard a lot of unfamiliar birds while traveling this weekend and would have paid good money for an app to identify them.

Behold, Birdgenie. Supposed to come out this summer.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:32 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

And lo: Bird Song Hero!
posted by jessamyn at 6:39 PM on June 11, 2014

posted by Tom-B at 11:46 AM on July 21, 2014

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