Birding by ear for beginners September 15, 2013

Posted by GGAS in Birding, How To...

Want to learn bird calls but not sure how to start? Here are some tips from Denise Wight, who teaches Golden Gate Audubon’s popular Birding By Ear classes. 

By Denise Wight

1. Learn to listen. While birding, be still and remain silent for a minute or two. Begin attentive listening to the bird sounds around you. Try to stay focused on individual sounds. Repeat often.

2. If you can, watch a bird as it sings or calls. Observe a vocalizing bird for as long as possible. Be aware of the habitat, season, time of day, smells, etc. Let the entire experience burn new path- ways of memory in your brain.

3. Start with the common birds. Get to know the vocalizations of House Finch, chickadee, Mourning Dove, and additional birds you encounter regularly.

4. Record the sound. Even the faintest sound recorded on a cell phone will help you recall the bird’s vocalization. Add comments at the end of the recording if possible.

Photo by Denise Wight

5. Use various techniques to recall bird sounds. Try mnemonics, silly phrases, or line drawings, or record yourself making the call! If “Chicago” prompts you to think “California Quail,” use it. Most of all, use what works for you!

6. Go out with someone who knows bird sounds. Join a GGAS field trip or take classes. You’ll learn much faster. Ask questions, take notes, even ask the leaders what tricks they use to recall the sounds you hear. This may also be an opportunity to find out just what bird species you may be missing due to hearing loss.

Spotted Towhee / Photo by Denise Wight

7. Consult apps and recordings. This can be helpful, but try to listen to the real bird in the field for as long as possible before you listen to recordings. They often sound similar, but sometimes they don’t, for various reasons.

8. Use additional information. Check books and online resources. Many links are on my website,

9. Take a look at sonograms (also called spectrograms). They are bit advanced, but are a great way to visualize bird sounds. Check out or

Sonogram of American Goldfinch song, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Listen to it at

10. Just get out and listen! Go out as often as you can, in different locations, weather, time of day, time of year. Listen with a joyful heart and without fear. Develop the desire to learn, practice often, and stick with it. Learning to identify birds by ear can be very slow, but you will be rewarded.


Denise Wight, a biological technician for Condor Country Consulting in Martinez, teaches  birding by ear classes for Golden Gate Audubon. She first became aware of bird sounds as a child when she heard “the saddest sound ever” on the way home from school.  Twenty years later, she learned it was the song of a Golden-crowned Sparrow. Denise’s web site is  This article will appear in the autumn issue of The Gull, our quarterly newsletter for members. 

Tags: bird calls, birding, birding by ear, birdsong, birdwatching, Denise Wight.