[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

Jump-start Your Birding-by-Ear Journey

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

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

Bird Song Basics: Getting Started with Birding by Ear

Enroll Now
About This Course
  • Lessons inside: 8
  • Topics inside: 25
  • Completion time (estimated): 3 hours
  • Instructional videos: 25
  • Total instructional video time: 44 minutes
  • Level: Beginner
  • Categories: Bird Identification, Nature Appreciation
  • Regionality: United States/Canada – General
  • CEU credits: 0.3 (optional additional purchase)
  • Self-paced, no expiration date, 100% online
  • 60-day refund guarantee
Mostly blue bird singing perched on green, leafy twigs with bill open singing. Indigo Bunting male
Image: Kevin McGowan
Indigo Bunting, male, USA

Why We Made This Course

"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."

Sarah Wagner—Sarah Wagner, Ph.D., Course Instructor
Canada Warbler
Image: Kevin McGowan

What's Inside

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 tuning in to 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.

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


Who This Course is For

Is this course for beginners?

Yes, we designed this course to support anyone just getting started with birding by ear—whether or not you are confident in identifying the birds you see.

Can I take this course if I use a screen reader or other assistive technology?

Yes. This course is designed to work with a screen reader and be accessible for those learning entirely by ear. While there are elements of the course that use visualizations to enhance the learning experience, they are a supplement, not a requirement.

Will I learn the bird songs from my area?

This course is focused on helping you develop listening techniques so that you can go beyond the course material to learn the birds in your area. It also includes information about how to use the Merlin App to help you identify bird sounds in real time so that you can build up your local knowledge quickly.

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

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 to help you narrow down your identification.

Lesson 2:
Listening in to the High Sierra

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:
Listening in to the 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:
Listening in to an 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:
Listening in to the 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:
Listening in to 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:
Listening in to 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!

Meet the Course Instructors

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
Buy Bird Song Basics: Getting Started with Birding by Ear Now!
Satisfaction Guarantee

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 60 days of the start of the course or purchase for a full refund.

Alternative Course Access

Birds can inspire people accross boundaries to build a more sustainable world. At Bird Academy we want to share the love and knowledge of birds! If you would like alternative access to this course, please take a look at our Take Flight Program

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.

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