Bird Songs – Try This!

Thank you to everyone who came out to our monthly Stanley Park bird survey in February. Unexpected snowy weather left the lagoon frozen in ice, but that didn’t stop us from spotting many birds including two elusive Virginia rails at Lost Lagoon and Beaver Lake. Varied thrush also made appearances along the trails, giving great views of their orange-and-black plumage and haunting songs. (Be sure to scroll down to see Else’s helpful resource list.)

A Virginia rail foraging in the snow. (Photo: Mark T White)

Spring migration is just around the corner, and in the coming months birdsong will be an increasingly important feature for finding and identifying songbirds. Right now is a great time to get started learning to recognize the songs of our local species before migrant species arrive. Below is a list of some of the most useful local bird songs to learn, with tips for identifying them courtesy of our monthly bird survey leader, Else Mikkelsen.  Birdsong identification can be tricky at first, but it is very rewarding and can allow you to find birds that would be hidden otherwise. 

Species

Mnemonic

ID Tips

American Robin

“Cheerily, Cheer-up, Cheerio!”

High pitched, sweet, up-and-down song.

Northwestern Crow

“Caw, Caw!”

Higher pitched than a raven, and more nasally.

Common Raven

“Craw, craw.”

Lower, croaking call. Deeper than a crow.

Song Sparrow

“Hey! Hey! Put on the kettle, kettle, kettle.”

Variable, sweet, melodic song. Listen for the first two repeated notes. Those first notes are diagnostic, but the rest of the song pattern is extremely variable.

White-crowned Sparrow

“I want cheese wiz now”

Ending can vary, but listen for the first two slow notes: low then high. The first two notes of Song Sparrow are the same pitch.

Pacific Wren

 

Incredibly variable, loud song with very fast tinkling notes running together, less structured than other bird songs.

Black-capped Chickadee

“Chickadee-deee-deee” and “Hey, sweetie”

Lower and harsher than Chestnut-backed. Commonly heard in neighbourhoods.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

“Sika-dee-dee”

Higher pitched and squeakier than Black-capped; never does “Hey, sweetie” song. Only common in evergreen forests.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

“Ankh, ankh, ankh, ankh”

Sounds like a toy horn.

Brown Creeper

“Sweet! I-am-so sweet!”

Extremely high pitched, tinkling notes going up and down.  Their calls are the same tone as their song, simple, high-pitched “See-see”. Compare to kinglet.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Seeee Seee See See Se Se sesesese

Extremely high pitched, simple series of rising notes. Their calls are high pitched, like a bell tinkling. Compare to creeper.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

“Doodelly dee dee dee do, chubby cheeks, chubby cheeks, chubby cheeks!”

High and low notes with characteristic pattern. Their chirps are low and rattling, not high-pitched like Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Perched song: scritchscratchsketch

Chasing song: Zicka-zicka-zicka

Very scratchy, high pitched song sung from a perch.

Bald Eagle

 

High pitched tinkling call – NOT the eagle scream often used in movies (that is a Red-tailed Hawk sound).

Spotted Towhee

“Tow-hee?”

Sounds like a cat meow. Also does a short trill, shorter, slower, and richer than junco trills.

Dark-eyed Junco

trill

Short, simple trill. Their chirps are also distinctive, like laser beams. Juncos mostly leave our area in late spring and are gone for the summer.

Pine Siskin

Chirp chirp chirp Chirp-o, Zoooooeeeee chirp chirp…

Descending chirps, mixed with characteristic sound like a zipper being pulled up.

Northern Flicker

“Clear!”

Two main sounds: a high-pitched, descending “Clear!” or a longer, laughing call.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy goes down

Fast, laughing song starting high and gradually lowering.

Steller’s Jay

“Shooka shooka shooka” “Shrike shrike shrike!”

Harsh, grating, scratchy calls.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Konk-a-reeee!”

Unique song.

Varied Thrush

 

Haunting, long notes of constant pitch. Changes pitch between notes.

House Finch

 

High-pitched and scratchy. Listen for diagnostic slow, buzzy notes mixed in.

European Starling

 

Extremely variable, long, continuous song of strange notes with no constant pattern. Frequently throws in impressions of other species, especially hawks and Killdeer.

Helpful Resources:

-Macaulay Library and Xeno-Canto: Free recordings of birdsong online. Tip: try to listen to recordings from BC or Washington, since populations from other regions can have different dialects than our birds. This is especially true for sparrows and Brown Creeper. 

-Phone apps: There are several good bird ID apps: 

  • Merlin is a new one which is free and contains many sound recordings, and also great search features for identifying an unknown bird. 
  • Larkwire is an excellent app for learning song identification. It has helpful tips and is designed specifically for learning, with it automatically tracking which songs you should study and testing you with slowly increasing difficulty. This is what I use to study song ID. It isn’t free, but I would highly recommend it. Look for “Larkwire Master Birder: Land Birds of Western North America”

 

By Else Mikkelsen, SPES Monthly Bird Survey leader