Tools for hearing and recalling sounds

Simple tricks

Sometimes, just finding the bird that you hear can be challenging. If you can pinpoint where the sound is coming from, then your chances of seeing the bird singing are vastly improved. Think about trying to hear something that is very faint - you put your hand to your ear. If you hear a sound to your left - you turn that way. By refining these simple responses to sound, your ability to locate singing birds will be enhanced. For faint sounds, using both hands cupped behind your ears increases the volume of the sound. By turning your head side-to-side, it gives you a better idea of the direction of the call (if a bird is calling directly behind you, it is sometimes difficult to tell that it isn't directly in front of you).

Something you won't find on this page: how to attact birds with recordings. To learn why not, click here.


If the sound is still hard to pinpoint, and the bird is not moving, you can try using triangulation. Beginning in position "A", point where you think the bird is calling from. Now remember that direction while you move to your right or left about ten feet (position "B"). Once again, point towards the singing bird:


If you are pointing in a different direction than the first time, the bird is nearby. If you can imagine where the two lines cross, that is very close to where the bird is singing. This technique can be very helpful in reducing the area that you have to search.

However, if the direction you are pointing seems about the same, then the bird is farther away, and you may need to move closer to see it:



An imitative, or onomatopoeia (pronounced ahn-uh-maht-uh-pea-uh) is a way of describing sounds with words. Many bird songs and calls can be interpreted with human words or sounds, such as "Co-ta-ti" for the California Quail (sorry, Chicago), the "quack" of a duck, or the "cheep" of a sparrow. Some imitatives have been used for so long they are the same as the name of the bird, such as Killdeer, or Poorwill.

Not everyone agrees what works best, as shown in this example: "Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody", or "Pure sweet Canada Canada Canada" have both been suggested for the song of the White-throated Sparrow. It is best to find a imitative phrase that works for you, and if you can't find one, try to make up your own.

Good imitative phrases have the same number of syllables as the actual song, and should be easy to remember. Accents may be added to show emphasis, such as "Co-Tá-ti".

Here are some more imitative phrases commonly used to describe bird songs:

Most bird songs and calls cannot be imitated using recognizable words. For these, we have to be creative, and again, what works for one may not make any sense to another:

For a downloadable Excel list of more common imitative phrases, click here


Descriptives are words used to describe a sound, such as the "bouncing ball" example for the song of a male Wrentit. They are very helpful when the simple imitative phrases just don't do the job (think of trying to describe the song of a Hermit Thrush with imitatives). Try combining several descriptive words into a phrase; one word for the speed or tempo, one for the pitch or frequency, and one or more for the character.

For example, the song of a House Finch could be described with these words:

Speed = lively

Pitch = high-pitched,

Character = warble

"A lively, high-pitched warble" - no, this is not a precise description, but it does help you to separate it from "a monotonous, high-pitched chirping", which could be used to describe a House Sparrow's "song".

Descriptives can be used along with imitatives to fine tune your description. Using the Red-breasted Nuthatch example above, if you say the "yaaank...yaaank" sounds like "a little tin horn", you are being more precise!

For a downloadable Excel list of more descriptives, click here

Answers to the Matching Game (right column)

You may have thought of other species than the answers shown - these are by no means the only possible ones, they are only examples to show how you can use words to identify a species' songs and calls.

a) Western Screech-Owl

b) Red-tailed Hawk

c) Tree Swallow


Song Sparrow

Thrice welcome, darling of the spring. Even yet thou art to me No bird, but an invisible thing, A voice, a mystery.

–William Wordsworth

Matching game

Try to match the descriptive with a common bird call:

a) an accelerating, quavering hoot

b) a piercing,
high-pitched scream

c) a soft, gurgling chirp


The answers are at the end of the Descriptives section (to left).


Website and photographs 2016 by Gordon Beebe