Backyard Birdsong

Why Birds Sing:

Singing Dark-eyed Junco by Kaaren Perry on Flickr

Birds make many sounds to communicate. Often they will have different sounds to stay in contact, beg for food, or sound an alarm, for example. But most well known is the phenomenon of song: these longer, more complex, sometimes musical series of notes are the center of spring’s soundtrack. As temperatures warm and days lengthen, birds respond physiologically to environmental cues, with song one of the first behaviors of the incipient nesting season. As male birds defend territories with more diligence, singing helps to advertise an individual’s presence and readiness to defend his patch from potential rivals, while demonstrating his good health and vigor to potential mates. 

Ten Common Yard Birds

Here are ten of the most common bird songs you’ll hear in a typical yard here in Marin or elsewhere in coastal California. If you’d like to learn more about birdsong, we always give a few seminars each spring expanding on this material at our Novato store – check our Upcoming Events calendar in February and March for upcoming talks.

Level 1: Pretty Unmistakable Song-like Calls

1. Great Horned Owl: Deep, muffled hooting with a stuttering rhythm, hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo. The male and female of a breeding pair may perform a duet of alternating calls, with the female’s voice higher in pitch than the male’s. This is our only owl with a classic hooting sound. 

2. Mourning Dove: A rather mournful cooing starting with an upwards slurred, two-part opening note: coo-AAH, cooo, coo, coo. This song always starts with that slurred and swelling two-part coo-AAH, unlike the varied and more stuttering hoots of the Great Horned Owl. Also, owls call at night; doves during the day. 

Level 2: Very Distinctive Songs

3. Golden-crowned Sparrow: You may have heard this winter resident singing soon after his arrival in the fall when few other birds are singing. Golden-crowns sing sporadically throughout the winter, then more often again as weather warms in spring, before their departure in March and April for northern breeding grounds. Their song is a distinctive series of three clearly whistled, descending notes, though you will often hear only two, and occasionally four.

4. Anna’s Hummingbird: A long song (~10 seconds) of rambling squeaks, grating sounds, and buzzes, unlike any other bird. Also listen for the loud pop! made by their tail feathers at the bottom of their courtship dives. 

5. Northern Mockingbird: The song is a long series of phrases, with each phrase usually repeated three times or more; the songs can go on for 20 seconds or more. Phrases may be imitations of other birds, other natural sounds, or manmade sounds, such as car alarms. Both males and females sing; unpaired males are the most vigorous singers and may even sing at night in spring.

Level 3: Common, Classically Musical Songs

6. American Robin: A classic song from perhaps our most famous singer. Evenly spaced carol resembling cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily or plurrri, kliwi, plurrri, kliwi; often a series of two or three short phrases, rising and then falling, alternately repeated over and over.

7. House Finch: Song a varied, lilting warble;  phrases often ends with a long veeerrr note slurred either upward or downward. This is one of our most common songs; finches can sing even during winter, especially on warmer, sunny days.  

House Finch - Risa George
Lesser Goldfinch - Nancy Frost

8. Lesser Goldfinch: Song is long combination of variable notes and phrases repeated randomly in rambling, intricate melody; may contain imitations of other species’ calls. Their scientific name is Spinus psaltria; a psaltria is a lyre player – a recognition of their musical talents. Our less abundant American goldfinches have a similar, but faster, song.

9. Dark-eyed Junco: A brief, light, dry trill; somewhat musical or bell-like.

10. Oak Titmouse: Repeated series of 3–7 syllables, each made up of coupled notes alternating from high to low frequency and with whistled quality: peter peter peter. One of the earliest songs to start in spring, heard regularly starting in January.

How to Learn Birdsong

For us humans, bird songs are an integral part of learning to identify different species. In addition to their intrinsic beauty, songs can be used to confirm the identity of poorly seen birds and to alert us to the presence of different species before we ever see them. 

The best way to learn is perhaps the simplest: when you hear a bird singing, go look and see who it is! Sometimes, of course, it’s hard to see who is singing, and we are all apt to forget who sounded like what after a while. The most valuable technique is to mentally (or physically, if you’re a note-taking type) transcribe the song into terms your brain will remember, whether by similar sounding English words (the California Quail’s “Chi-CA-go!” call), by as close a phonetic rendering as you can get with our alphabet (something like cu-CA-cow might be close), or by description (“three loud syllables, with the second one loudest and most strongly accented”). Even musically-minded people like Michael Redgrave’s ethnomusicologist in The Lady Vanishes are prone to forget pure melodies, even when the fate of the free world rests in their hands. That’s why it’s vital to use some kinds of words to describe the songs you hear birds making – that’s simply how we humans think and remember things.

The dangers of relying on our auditory memories – and Dame Whitty may not always be there to save you when the Bewick’s wren sings.

Most field guides have some kind of written representation of songs and calls; it can be useful when you hear a song to see how your field guide author chose to render it and try to mentally overlay that description the next time you hear the song. Some other good resources are All About Birds, where recordings of most birds (with descriptions) can be found, local CDs with helpful commentary that we sell at the store, or bird guide apps like iBird, which include playable songs and calls for each species. 

Top photo: Northern Mockingbird by Allan Hack on Flickr