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
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
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
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
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!
(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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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. ..."
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.
A harsh scream, falling in pitch and fading away. Some
people think it sounds like tearing a piece of fabric.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Nothing else sounds like a waxwing's very high-pitched whistle,
sometimes slightly trilled.
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!
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 ...
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!
Usually an easy song to recognize -- a series of notes on one pitch
(or sometimes rising) that accelerate like a bouncing ball.
Another easy song to recognize, which ends with triplets on the
same pitch. Canadians think it sings O sweet Canada, Canada,
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
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
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!,
Very nasal repeated calls -- yank, yank. In early
spring, similar notes are repeated rapidly to make a "song" --
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
Another bird that announces its name. Emphasis is on the
first three syllables.
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.
This flycatcher says fee'-bee in a burry voice. At
intervals it produces a variant -- fee-br-eee'.
the spelling of its name, to match that of a minor Greek goddess, is pure
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
A common plover with a distinctive piercing call --
kill-deeer or just deeer
Easy -- bob! white!. Coveys also have a rallying call
birds get separated -- ka-loi-kee? answered by similar calls.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
crescendo as the song proceeds.
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...
Another rollicking song by a warbler. This one usually
starts low and ends with a flourish -- twa-twa-twa-t'WEE-O
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.
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
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!
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.
Bluebirds are thrushes and try to sound like them, but they always
seem to have a bad head-cold. Their short warbling songs are
The classic pattern is Drink yer teeeea!. Sometimes
this gets shortened to Drink teeea!. Also listen for their
distinctive calls, heard year-round -- chwink?