Be a Better Birder: How to Identify Bird Songs

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[Cornell Lab staff imitating bird song] You can think that this is the Warbling Vireo talking to the insect: “I will see and and I’ll seize you and I’ll squeeze you until you squirt.” Before I could identify bird songs they all sort of blended together. Learning how to identify bird songs by ear is super important to develop great birding skills. The cacophony or the ensemble of birds that are singing really give me a sense of place, It’s for me like wearing a comfortable blanket. I feel secure when I know who is singing around me. It makes me feel like I’m maybe a secret governmental agent who is always aware of their surroundings. They know where everybody is seated in a room, right, so it’s kind of like that. It allows me to go out into the forest any time of the year and detect a lot of the birds that I might not be able to see. If you’re just starting out trying to learn bird song, go slow. Once you know the songs and you know the mnemonics it’s much easier to figure out which sounds belong to a single individual. How often do you get to see a Connecticut Warbler? Not very. But if you hear it you’re like Oh! I know that there’s a Connecticut Warbler in here and I’m going spend some time searching around looking for it.

End of transcript

"You’ve just stepped outside and there’s an unfamiliar chirping nearby. A quick look around and there is no bird in sight, but the song keeps coming. Frustratingly, you have no idea who is singing. On top of that, you hear a bunch of other birds in the distance. It’s happened to all of us. We developed this course to help you learn how to tune in to bird song and gain confidence in birding by ear."

—Dr. Sarah Wagner, Course Instructor
Mostly blue bird singing perched on green, leafy twigs with bill open singing. Indigo Bunting male Photo: Kevin McGowan
Indigo Bunting, male, USA

Jump-start Your Birding-by-Ear Skills

Master techniques for identifying bird songs that you can apply to learning the birds in your area.

  • Build skills using exclusive learning tools
  • Practice identifying birds using real soundscapes
  • Get expert birding-by-ear tips from Cornell Lab staff

Bird Song Spotlight Tool

Bird Academy has developed a unique approach to teach you how to listen to bird songs in their natural soundscapes. Watch the video below to see it in action:

Photo: Ryan Schain/Macaulay Library, Kevin J. McGowan, Isaac Sanchez/CC BY 2.0. Audio: Gregory F Budney/Macaulay Library

What's Inside

Canada Warbler Photo: Kevin McGowan
Completion Time:
3 hrs estimated
Optional CEU Credits:

Travel across the country exploring real soundscapes with Dr. Sarah Wagner as your guide. She’ll introduce you to an exciting variety of wild voices and bring in Cornell Lab experts to teach you tips and tricks for learning to identify them. You’ll explore 7 natural soundscapes and get to know 18 featured birds before unleashing your new listening skills on a mystery soundscape. You’ll watch field clips of birds singing, get to know their songs, and then learn to recognize them in context with our Bird Song Spotlight tool.

Try a Sample Lesson

How to Identify Bird Songs uses a unique teaching approach. Travel North America visiting real soundscapes.

Try a free sample lesson

Meet the Course Instructors

Sarah Wagner
Dr. Sarah Wagner Professional Ornithologist, Expert in Foraging Behavior

Dr. Sarah Wagner is a course developer for the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy. An accomplished field researcher specializing in feeding biology of birds, Sarah has worked all over the continent and has years of professional experience identifying birds by ear. She is co-author of the Cornell Lab’s university-level online Ornithology course and a public educator in the Lab’s visitor center.

Mya Thompson
Dr. Mya Thompson Instructional Designer, Expert in Animal Communication and Behavior

Mya Thompson is the Project Leader for Bird Academy where she specializes in creating innovative eLearning tools. She serves as producer and instructional designer for all of the platform’s courses, games, and interactives. Her past research on infrasonic elephant communication inspires her to help people uncover the many surprises that animals have to offer—from the behavior of the largest mammals to that of the smallest birds.

Course Overview

Lesson 1:

How to Listen to Bird Song

Get started building up your birding-by-ear toolbox—learn how to visualize and describe bird song and commit sounds to memory with a little beak reading. Get tips on how to use natural history cues help you narrow down your identification.

Lesson 2:

High Sierras

Explore a serene soundscape from the mountains of California and then go deeper to learn which bird voices are joining the dawn chorus. Plus get expert listening tips for training your ear to notice the subtle bird sounds mixed in among the more obvious ones.

Lesson 3:

Northeast Woods

Visit a healthy woodland in central New York full of birds singing their hearts out and train your ear to distinguish among the distinct voices. Learn the difference between bird calls and songs.

Lesson 4:

Alaskan Island

Journey to a remote volcanic island off the coast of Alaska where seabirds and forest songbirds create an abundance of sound. Learn the difference between the songs of thrushes and wrens.

Lesson 5:

Southwest Desert

It’s oasis time. Listen to the birds (and insects!) clustered near the small Bill Williams river in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona. Develop your skill in isolating one bird song from another with expert tips on how to tune in to directional cues in the field.

Lesson 6:

Coastal Maine

Tune in as some beautiful songsters announce themselves in a peaceful scene from coastal Maine surrounded by a balsam fir forest and calm inlet waters. Explore ways to categorize the pitch and sound quality of a bird song—is it high-pitched, low-pitched, buzzy, chipping, or trilling?

Lesson 7:

Texas Hill Country

Visit a birding hotspot in Texas Hill Country where you’ll meet not one but two endangered songbirds. Practice paying attention to the entire song – don’t expect to be able to identify the bird in the first few notes. For some species you need to hear the whole thing.

Lesson 8:

Your Birding-by-Ear Toolbox

Now that you’ve trained your ear to listen for all kinds of bird songs, get tips for putting your new skills to work identifying the birds that live near you. Take the Mystery Soundscape Challenge to practice and earn your certificate.

The Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds Essential Set for North America

Included for Free: Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds

This authoritative audio collection from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library is included as a free bonus with the course to help you learn the voices of the birds that live near you. Within the course, you’ll receive online access to this digital collection featuring the most common songs and calls of 729 North American species with more than 1,300 mp3 files included. Another great tool for your birding-by-ear toolbox!

This Course is Entirely Online

There’s nothing to be shipped, and no additional material is necessary. Bird Academy courses are online, self-paced, and there is no deadline to complete them. You can return to them for reference or practice as often as you want. All course material, practice tools, instructional videos, and quizzes are available through your web browser. Learn anytime, anywhere*. Gain the skills and understanding you’re looking for. *Requires an internet connection and a modern web browser.

Hear What Students Have to Say

Great course. As a beginning birder, the soundscape picture really helped me visualize the parts of the bird songs and the little quizzes helped me remember what I learned. Was afraid it was going to be too daunting, but it was fun. Thanks so much." Bird Academy Student
The spectrograms were very useful and breaking them down into each bird’s song so we could focus on its spectrogram was so valuable. Now when I go outside, I try to visualize the songs, like a spectrogram in my head, which helps me to describe the song. I hear SO much more now when I go outside." Bird Academy Student
The repetition of seeing the bird sing in the video, listening for pitch, tone, pauses, repeat phrases, and the mnemonics all added up for a very comprehensive learning exercise. I am a fearful quiz taker & enjoyed the quizzes as well. This course was invaluable to me, a casual birder." Bird Academy Student
I am a visual learner, so bird song hasn't come easily for me. I have read the song descriptions before and listened to audio clips, but something about the highlighted spectrograms while hearing the songs made it click better." Bird Academy Student
I have absolutely loved the courses. As a newer birder but an avid fan of birds, I have learned so much. Your classes are really well put together—excellent instructional design." Margaret, Bird Academy Student
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Our educators and birding experts take pride in the courses they create. If you're not satisfied with the material for ANY reason, contact us within 30 days of the start of the course or purchase for a full refund.

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Course credits:

Course Authors: Sarah Wagner & Mya Thompson
Instructional Designer & Media Producer: Mya Thompson
Web & Media Designer: Jeff Szuc
Sound Collections Manager: Matt Young
Photo Collections Manager: Lee Ann van Leer
Copy Editor: Noah Warnke
Advisors: Dr. Marcelo Araya Salas, Dr. Kathi Borgmann, Jessie Barry, Greg Budney, Alex Chang, Ian Davies, Martha Fischer, Katie Fitzmier, Nathaniel Hernandez, Dr. Kevin McGowan, Jay McGowan, Dr. Eliot Miller, Dr. Karan Odom, Matt Young

Video credits:

Videographers: Chris Foito & Karen Rodriguez
Editor: Chris Foito
Appearances by: Kathi Borgmann, Marc Devokaitis, Michael Huffaker, Ashik Rahaman, Mya Thompson, Andrew Weber
Birds imitated (in order of appearance): Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Asian Koel, Yellow Warbler—Sweet, Sweet, Sweet. Isn't it Sweet?, White-throated Sparrow—Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody!, Olive-sided Flycatcher-Quick three beers!, Eastern Towhee—Drink Your Tea!, Warbling Vireo—I'll see you and I'll seize you and I'll squeeze you 'til you squirt!

Give the Gift of Learning

Gift certificates are a great way to give the bird enthusiasts in your life something that supports and encourages their passion.

Learn About Gift Certificates