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Learning Bird Sounds in the Eastern U.S.

by Vicki Piaskowski, Kerry Scanlan and Steve Mahler

Bird sounds (vocalizations) can be divided into two main groups: songs and calls. Songs help establish territory and attract mates. Calls help birds communicate both on the ground and in the air. An interesting fact is that, while we can learn to recognize the type of species and possibly the sex of the bird we are listening to, birds actually can recognize distinct individuals within a group by their sounds. Songbirds have better developed voice structures than we humans do and some actually can sing two notes at the same time.

The tonal qualities of bird songs may vary by the habitat in which birds live. Some tones may carry better in heavy woods than in open fields.


What Some Humans Think They Sound Like in Human Words

Baltimore oriole flutelike, rich whistles, lots of variety
Barred owl who cooks for you, who cooks for you all...
Black-capped chickadee chickadee-dee-deee
Cardinal what, what, what, cheer, cheer, cheer
Cedar waxwing a high-pitched, buzzy eee, eee...
Chipping sparrow a rapid dry trill
Downy woodpecker pik or chik, also a descending whinny
Eastern bluebird musical, like a robin but softer and includes chur-wee
Eastern towhee drink your teaaaaaa...
Goldfinch potato chip, potato chip, potato chip
Great homed owl who's awake, me too (hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hooh)
Hairy woodpecker a high-pitched peek, a low, even-pitched rattle
Killdeer kill-deeah and kil-dee, dee, dee, dee
Mourning dove oo-ah, whoo, whoo, whoo
Ovenbird teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher (gets louder)
Red-bellied woodpecker a low, repeated churr, churr, churr; a loud wick, wick, wick
Red-eyed vireo here I am, where are you (repeated over and over)
Robin cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily...
Red-winged blackbird konk-la-reee
Rose-breasted grosbeak similar to a robin, but richer and longer
Scarlet tanager same as a robin, but more burry
Song sparrow maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, lettle, lettle.
White-breasted nuthatch a nasal yank, yank, yank...
White-throated sparrow O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada

Birds may have different dialects, and young birds need a lot of practice learning their calls and songs. To recognize bird calls/songs, you will need practice, too; but your efforts will pay off. Our ability to see is limited to about 200 degrees because our head will turn only so far to either side; but we are able to hear 360 degrees around us. Your efforts will be well worth it.

Good luck and keep your ears open.


Kaufman, K. 2000. Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, NY.

Walton, R. and R. Lawson. 1990. Birding by Ear : Eastern/Central : A Guide to Bird-Song Identification; Peterson Field Guides. [3 Audio CDs]. Houghton Mifflin Audio, Boston, MA.

Suggested reading for further information:

Weidensaul, Scott. 1990. A Kid's First Book of Birdwatching. Quintet Publishing Limited, London, England.

Suggested Internet sites where one can hear bird sounds/calls:

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