Recognizing Songs and Calls of 50 North Carolina Birds

To recognize birds by sound takes a bit more practice than to recognize them by sight.   But the principle is the same -- you must learn the "field marks" or differential diagnosis.   In other words, you must learn the features that let you know you are not listening to something else.

Since we have a harder time describing sounds, some silly mnemonics are often a help.   The following notes should get you started.

Extra credit for anyone who posts a new and useful mnemonic on our email list!

Northern Mockingbird

Repeats phrases three or more times -- usually.   Because it sings day and night for most of the year, it is one of the Southeast's best known birds!

Brown Thrasher

Repeats phrases twice -- usually.   It also has a richer tone than the Mockingbird, and it sings throughout the day for just a few weeks in springtime.

Gray Catbird

Catbirds sing a true jumble of phrases, without repeats.   If you are patient, they almost always betray themselves before long by throwing in one of their cat-like mews!

Downy Woodpecker

(1) A rapid whinny, falling in pitch at the end.   (2) A short pick, not as high-pitched or emphatic as a Hairy's similar call.   To me the Downy sounds like a cute bird.

Hairy Woodpecker

A rapid rattle, falling in pitch at the beginning if at all.   (2) A short peek, higher in pitch and more strident than a Downy's call.   To me the Hairy sounds like a mean bird -- or at least a bird of big wild forests.

Northern Flicker

Flickers produce several sounds, especially in springtime.   Least often heard is its namesake, wicka-wicka-wicka.....   Its most frequent call is a single kleeyer.   Also frequent is a long series of simple notes, much like a Pileated Woodpecker's call except lacking the ringing, hollow quality of the Pileated.   They just don't sound so wild and wooly as a Pileated does!

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileateds are heard much more often than they are seen, because they have such big territories (as befits a big bird).   The usual call, which can be heard for almost a mile, is a series of loud, hollow, ringing notes.   Often (not always) the repetition rate varies, unlike the regular rate of the Northern Flicker's similar call.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The most frequently heard call is a chirrr or kwirrr, with a strange nasal tone.   Like other woodpeckers, it also has a series of notes, harsher, faster, and shorter than a Northern Flicker's train.

American Robin

The song consists of short complicated phrases, usually 5-10 in a row, but sometimes many more in springtime at dawn.   The notes in each phrase are rich and flute-like in tone.

Red-eyed Vireo

One of the most numerous birds in North Carolina forests in spring and summer, but seldom noticed because they are drab little birds that live in the tops of trees!   The song consists of short phrases, repeated endlessly, every 1-2 seconds.   The notes are sweet but not rich in tone.   These birds sound like they are carrying on an inane conversation with themselves -- "Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Here I am. ..."

Yellow-throated Vireo

Another species that sings a long series of short phrases.   Its songs are easy to recognize by their relatively simple phrases (in comparison to the Red-eye's more complex ones), the husky or burry start of each phrase, and the tendency to keep coming back to the same simple down-slurred phrase, "Ree-yay".   Unlike the Red-eyed Vireo, they are heard mostly during a few weeks in April.

Red-tailed Hawk

A harsh scream, falling in pitch and fading away.   Some people think it sounds like tearing a piece of fabric.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Repeated bi-syllabic calls, kee-yer ... kee-yer ..., harsh and nasal in tone.   Be careful not to be fooled by Blue Jays that often imitate these calls.   The jays usually sound a bit anemic (less loud and bold), but sometimes it is hard to tell!

Chipping Sparrow

A common bird wherever there are lawns in summertime.   One of several species that produce rapid trills on one pitch, the Chippy sounds very mechanical, like a sewing machine.

Swamp Sparrow

These birds migrate northward by late April, but before they leave they often sing on sunny mornings.   They almost always sing from wet grassy fields, as befits their name.   Their trills have a jangling quality, like shaking a bunch of keys.

Pine Warbler

Another common bird in North Carolina all spring and summer.   It too produces a monotonous trill, but it sounds a bit more melodious than a Chipping Sparrow.   To our ears, the rapidly repeated notes have a little more tonality.   If you pay close attention, you can often hear very slight changes in pitch in the course of a trill.

Cedar Waxwing

Nothing else sounds like a waxwing's very high-pitched whistle, sometimes slightly trilled.

Northern Cardinal

Notes repeated at a moderate pace often alternate between (or combine) short abrupt sounds and clear descending or rising whistles -- What-cheer! What-cheer! What-cheer! What-what-what-what! Cheer-cheer-cheer!

Tufted Titmouse

A timouse's songs are a series of 5-10 similar bi-syllabic notes -- Peter, peter, peter, peter ... or some variation of this theme.   At a distance, one syllable of each note sometimes is lost -- Pete, pete, pete ...

Eastern Meadowlark

One of the favorite birds of people in the country.   In springtime they sing a wild beautiful song of loud whistles falling and rising in pitch -- Spring of theee year!

Field Sparrow

Usually an easy song to recognize -- a series of notes on one pitch (or sometimes rising) that accelerate like a bouncing ball.

White-throated Sparrow

Another easy song to recognize, which ends with triplets on the same pitch.   Canadians think it sings O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!.

Barred Owl

Although not confined to the South, it has a southern accent -- Who cooks for you?   Who cooks for you-all?

Great Horned Owl

Lower in pitch than Barred Owls and a different rhythm -- Hoo'--hoohoohoo'--hoo-hoo.   What you hear depends on how close you are.   The female is larger than the male, but has a higher-pitched voice.

Eastern Screech-Owl

This owl sounds nothing like an owl of folklore!   It has two calls, (1) a mellow rapid whinny descending in pitch, and (2) a long train of quick notes rather like a bouncing ball.   Both are easy to whistle!

Mourning Dove

As its name suggests, this dove produces a mournful hoo-oo' hoo hoo.   Don't confuse it with an owl!

Great Crested Flycatcher

This species produces several different calls, all nasal or burry and very emphatic -- wheep!, also krreep! or creep!, also kwip-kwip-kwip-kwip...

White-breasted Nuthatch

Very nasal repeated calls -- yank, yank.   In early spring, similar notes are repeated rapidly to make a "song" -- yank-yank-yank-yank-yank...

House Wren

A bubbly song that starts with a few quiet low notes and then swells into an effervescent jumble.   The bird seems to need to clear its throat before starting.   It ends with a lot of sound for a small bird!


This bird says its name!   Emphasis is on the first and last syllables.


Another bird that announces its name.   Emphasis is on the first three syllables.

Carolina Chickadee

Chickadees say their names too, in their ch-k-dee-dee-dee-dee calls.   The songs heard in early spring consist of four high-pitched whistes (sometimes only two are audible at a distance) in an even rhythm -- fee-bee-fee-bay or sometimes a different pattern.

Eastern Phoebe

This flycatcher says fee'-bee in a burry voice.   At intervals it produces a variant -- fee-br-eee'.
Notice that the spelling of its name, to match that of a minor Greek goddess, is pure affectation!

Eastern Wood-Pewee

These flycatchers produce two phrases, mixed in irregular sequence, just as the Eastern Phoebe does.   The Wood-Pewee's phrases though are clear thin whistles, conspicuously drawled as if the poor bird hardly had the energy to sing! -- peee-a-weee and every once in a while peeeuuu


A common plover with a distinctive piercing call -- kill-deeer or just deeer

Northern Bobwhite

Easy -- bob! white!.   Coveys also have a rallying call when birds get separated -- ka-loi-kee? answered by similar calls.

House Finch

These songs are heard all over campus all spring long (at least since this species colonized this area in the late 1970's).   A jumble of scratchy whistles, often ending with a burry note that slurs downward.   The call in flight is short and slightly doubled.

American Crow

The familiar caw, caw.   Pay attention to the considerable variety in the patterns of repetition, tonality, and rate.   This is a good call to learn, for comparison with Fish Crows' nasal (and often doubled) calls -- ka-ha -- on the coast and on campus during spring and summer.

Blue Jay

Everybody knows the familiar jaay - jaay, but during early springtime also listen for the surprising tootling notes.   Jays also mimick the calls of hawks (around Chapel Hill especially Red-shouldered Hawks), although often they don't quite get it right.

Red-winged Blackbird

Every cattail marsh in North America (and many alfalfa fields too) ring with the songs of these blackbirds -- a couple of low notes then a nasal bleat -- onk-a-reeeee!

Song Sparrow

These birds sing short but complicated songs.   They often include a buzzy note somewhat in the middle and almost always start with about three low notes that accelerate slightly.


A warbler with a ringing, high-pitched song like other warblers.   This one says -- teacher-teacher-TEACHER-TEACHER -- or actually cher-tea-cher-tea-cher-TEA-cher-TEA-cher.   Notice how the phrases crescendo as the song proceeds.

Carolina Wren

Although each wren has a repertoire of 30-50 different song patterns, all are distinctive rollicking phrases repeated 4-10 times -- teakettle-teakettle ... or cheeseburger-cheeseburger.... or video-video ... or tweedledee-tweedledee...

Hooded Warbler

Another rollicking song by a warbler.   This one usually starts low and ends with a flourish -- twa-twa-twa-t'WEE-O

Common Yellowthroat

Rather like a Carolina Wren because it repeats a complicated phrase with a wide range of pitches, but the Yellowthroat has a higher pitch and sounds scratchier -- witchety-witchety-witchety....   Also Yellowthroats are usually in shrubby fields, instead of the shrubby forests favored by Carolina Wrens.

American Redstart

In early springtime, their songs are distinctive -- high-pitched notes on an even pitch ending with one emphatic note -- tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee-TSIU.   But you have to be careful, because they can sing a number of song patterns without the final emphasis.

Wood Thrush

One of the great singers of North America!   From a low beginning, each short phrase rises quickly to a final trill with a hauntingly beautiful tone -- probably a result of syringeal duetting!

White-eyed Vireo

This bird has a scrappy song that befits a scrappy little bird in thick bushes.   Songs usually (not always) start with a stacatto note and, after some complicated things in the middle, end with a stacatto note -- CHICK-a-perweeo-CHICK -- but there are lots of variants.

Eastern Bluebird

Bluebirds are thrushes and try to sound like them, but they always seem to have a bad head-cold.   Their short warbling songs are extremely nasal.

Eastern Towhee

The classic pattern is Drink yer teeeea!.   Sometimes this gets shortened to Drink teeea!.   Also listen for their distinctive calls, heard year-round -- chwink?