Identifying birds can be challenging, or even intimidating, but it’s truly rewarding once you get into it. A common first step to identifying birds is through sight by taking into account a bird’s size, colour patterns, behaviour, and even their surroundings and habitat. Another way to identify birds is through sound. Oftentimes, you will hear a birds’ song or call before you even see them.

Anna-ShayneKaye-1 - BC Bird Trail
Anna’s Hummingbirds have distinctive songs full of chirps and buzzes and displaying males will make a loud squeak at the bottom of the courtship dives.

Getting started with recognizing birds by their calls and sounds is not difficult, it just takes some practice. It’s a skill you can learn and develop and you’ll be surprised that you may already know some common BC bird sounds. You know what a crow sounds like, right? There you go, that’s one! If you’ve been camping in BC, you can probably recognize the calls of a Steller’s Jay. You may have heard a buzzing sound that Anna’s Hummingbirds make when they zip past to go to a feeder without even knowing it.

Tips on IDing Bird Songs and Calls

When you’re starting out, pay attention to what you hear and not just what you see. You’ll hear many birds whose calls you don’t know. Focus on one, and try to spot the bird. If you do, make a mental note of what it sounds like and looks like. Do this a handful of times and you’ll start being able to recognize some of the common birds in your area.

If you hear the bird but don’t end up seeing it, you can always try birding websites and apps that have audio clips of each species. If you’re trying to find a specific species on an outing, look up and listen to its songs or calls before you go so that your ears can help you find it. It’s also helpful to take some time to listen to calls or songs of all the birds that could be in your area, as you may recognize their calls once you are out birding.

All About Birds, by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a great resource for IDing birds and they have recordings of calls and songs of thousands of birds.

You can use All About Birds to learn about the calls of birds to get yourself familiar with them before you go out birding.

Listening for and identifying birds by sound is also extremely useful for birds that rarely come out of hiding. For example, it’s not common for a Swainson’s Thrush to come out in the open on a branch, but they have a delightful spiraling song that brightens up the forest.

Note that some birds have different songs and calls. In the same way that our voice sounds different if we’re talking with a friend vs. yelling for help, birds have different calls for things like attracting mates and calling out an alarm with a predator nearby. 

As for remembering which bird makes what sound, birders have a trick for that. Sometimes you’ll see bird calls written out in guides in fun ways as an interpretation of what their call sounds like to humans. Two fun ones you’ll find along the BC Bird Trail are the Barred Owl and its “Who – Who cooks for you?” call and the Olive-sided Flycatcher’s “Quick, three beers!” These may sound silly, but once you hear their actual call and how much it sounds like these phrases, you’ll never forget which bird it is!

Barred Owl in a tree
Have you ever heard the Barred Owl’s “Who cooks for you?” call?

Keep Your Ears to the Skies

A lot of bird calls can be difficult to tell apart and some experienced birders can pick out the tiniest difference between similar birds. This can be pretty discouraging when you’re just beginning, but again, remember that every single species you learn makes a difference in your bird watching experience. Keep listening and make use of online resources to help you improve.

You don’t need to be able to identify every single bird you hear to make learning calls worthwhile. Just getting a dozen or so common species will make a huge difference in how much you enjoy being outside and how much you feel connected with nature. When you start paying attention to the songs that birds make, you’ll quickly end up with a new level of enjoyment. It won’t take long before you find yourself picking out a few favourites and noticing them whenever they’re around.

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