Navigation of this identification guide

The song identification guide is designed so you can jump right in. Hopefully you already experienced this ease of use, but if you are reading this, perhaps a more detailed description of how to navigate the guide will help.

The identification guide presents you with a series of choices on the qualities or attributes of the sound you are trying to identify. Some of the choices are quite objective (e.g., number of different notes in the sound), while other choices may be more subjective: which sounds are harsh or unmusical. Here are some working definitions of the terms commonly used in the guide. At each point, pick the choice that most closely corresponds to the attributes of the sound you are trying to identify. Each choice has a short description of that sound attribute and a listing of the species which will be included if you pick that choice. You can highlight a species in the select box, and press the 'Select bird' button to display a link to the species' sound file and a description of the sound you will hear.

As you continue through the guide, making choices at each point, you will exclude more and more of the bird sounds. You will finally arrive at a listing of species and descriptions of the sounds in the sound file. All of these sounds share the attributes you chose, and the guide does not break this group down further. The species name is a link to the sound file described.

The attributes shared by the sounds and songs included are displayed at the top of each page. This is also a navigational history which summarizes the choices you have already made. You can use this history to backtrack to particular choices, so you may try different ones. If you don't see what you expect, back up a try a different choice (e.g. my 'high pitched' may correspond to your 'moderately pitched', or what I think of has 'harsh' you may think of as 'melodic').

Some qualifications about use of this guide: the sound you are trying to identify may not exist among the selections, but the guide will allow you to find sounds similar in some sense to the one you are trying to identify. Though you may know which bird is singing, the sound presented here may bear no resemblance to what you are hearing. Most species of birds make many different sounds, and there may be regional dialects. Finally, some birds can mimic the sounds of others. It's always best to try to see who is doing the singing!

Other references of great interest include:

  • Greenewalt, C.H. 1968. Bird song: acoustics and physiology. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
  • Saunders, A.A. 1935. A guide to bird songs; descriptions and diagrams of the songs and singing habits of land birds of northeastern United States. Appleton-Century Co., NY, NY.
  • Bondesen, P. 1977. North American bird songs : a world of music. Klampenborg : Scandinavian Science Press
  • Kroodsma, D. 2005. The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Saunders (1935) and Bondesen (1977) include song keys with terminologies that are quite involved and that differ somewhat from that used here.

Kroodsma (2005) is an excellent resource.

Return to the song identification guide

Working definitions of the terms commonly used in the guide

The descriptions of sounds and songs and their attributes generally follow their use in these references:

  • Jardine, E. 1996. Bird song: identification made easy. Natural Heritage / Natural History Inc., Toronto Ontario, Canada.
  • National Geographic Society. 1983. Field guide to the birds of North America. Washington, DC.
  • Robbins, C.S., B. Bruun and H.S. Zim. 1966. Birds of North America. Golden Press, NY, NY.
  • Peterson, R.T. 1980. Field guide to the birds: a completely new guide to all the birds of eastern and central North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA., USA.
Pitch
Objective definitions of high-pitched vs. low-pitched sounds would necessarily involve measurements of wavelengths, which would be difficult for most birders! If a choice of 'high-pitched' does not lead to sounds like to one you are trying to identify, try 'moderately-pitched' and see if this conforms more to your sound.
Harshness
Harsh sounds have many overtones, and sound croaky, raspy or buzzy, depending on whether the sound is low-, moderate- or high-pitched. Clear sounds do not have such overtones. Complicated songs may have harsh portions and clear portions.
Patterns
Song pattern reflects the sequence and timing of the parts of the sound. In simple songs, a note or set of notes can be repeated quickly, such that the notes immediately follow each other, or the notes can be interspersed with pauses. A sound can be of short duration or of long duration (e.g., short chips vs. long, drawn-out calls). Complicated songs can be given as phrases, where sets of notes are separated by pauses, or a string of notes with no obvious pauses. You will see terms like these throughout the guide.

Last revision of this page 26 November 2013, by Jim Felley
Please email comments or criticisms to felleyj@si.edu.