The Language of Birds

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Last week, I introduced the Dawn Chorus as a way to use your own home to get out into nature. This week, I’m going to help you make the most of the Dawn Chorus and any other birding you intend to do. This is Coronavirus Wildlife Hack #2: The Language of Birds.

Especially if you’re new to birding, birdsong can be simultaneously beautiful and unintelligible. The Dawn Chorus might sound more like a cacophony rather than the interplay of species defending territory and attracting mates. With such a low-resolution understanding of these vocalizations, the excitement of the Dawn Chorus will eventually fade into a routine experience and lose its luster.

I heard an Acorn Woodpecker during the Dawn Chorus. Credit: Marlin Harms

“You see, but you do not observe.” In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson why detective work can seem so simple in hindsight, but so few can actually solve cases. The details aren’t hidden to anyone; Sherlock has just taken the time to examine and understand them. This is the same reason why a mechanic can listen to a car’s sound and determine what’s wrong with it, and why living in Nicaragua for a month dramatically improved my Spanish. When you really focus on understanding something, details previously inaccessible to you start to reveal themselves with each subsequent effort. It’s the same with birdsong.

Learning to identify birds by their call is like a language. Fortunately for us, grammar, conjugation, and exceptions to the rules are largely absent from this process. Bird identification can be fruitful even if you learn by rote memorization. That’s exactly how I started!

Anna’s Hummingbirds have a distinctive call that is easily learned. Credit: Mikayla Helmbold

With some time and effort, a simple bird call becomes the vocalization of a Cedar Waxwing, Clark’s Nutcracker, or Anna’s Hummingbird. You might start off being able to recognize one or two calls amidst dozens. Eventually, your resolution will continue to sharpen until you can tell the difference between a single bird’s mating song, territorial call, predator alert, or even juveniles begging for food. The deeper you dive in, the more complex this world becomes, but that complexity does not create a barrier for entry. Start small, and the language of birds will open up to you, step by step.

A great way to jump into bird identification is to utilize resources from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. The lab’s website has a massive database filled with visual and vocal identification information for thousands of bird species. For any given species, you can listen to recordings of both bird calls and bird songs. In general, you can think of calls as shorter, less complex vocalizations, whereas songs are longer and more elaborate (though their function changes depending on the species).

The Black Phoebe is another regular occurrence at my house. Credit: Francesco Veronesi

Better still, the team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed the Merlin App, which allows you to identify a bird you’ve seen in real time. It is a remarkable tool and can really help you get your bearings while your mental catalogue of bird calls is growing.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove is NOT a pigeon. Credit: Charles J. Sharp

Last week, I mentioned that my own experience with the Dawn Chorus revealed 21 distinct bird vocalizations—a mixture of calls and songs—during a 30-minute period. I have selected four of the species that I heard –Acorn Woodpecker, Anna’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, and Eurasian Collared-Dove— as great species to start with. These birds are relatively common and have distinct vocalizations, ensuring a quick return on investment.

I want to thank Mikayla Helmbold, who spared me the embarrassment of pulling all of my photos this week from Wikipedia. Mikayla provided the stunning photo of the Anna's Hummingbird. In addition to photography, Mikayla has true talent with ink and paint. Check out her site here.

Next week, we’ll take a look at creatures closer to the ground…much closer.

Until next time!

I sincerely hope this wildlife hack has helped you, your children, or your students get away from your screens and into nature. If you enjoy what I'm doing, feel free to reach out with questions or suggested topics at

Educational Sources:

Axelson, Gustave. Look out! The Backyard Bird Alarm Call Network. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. January 2016.

Doyle, A.C. (1892) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London, England: George Newnes Ltd.

Pérez-Granados, Cristian, Osiejuk, Tomasz S, & López-Iborra, Germán M. (2018). Dawn chorus interpretation differs when using songs or calls: The Dupont's Lark Chersophilus duponti case. PeerJ (San Francisco, CA), 6, E5241.

Photo Credits:

Harms, Marlin - Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

Helmbold, Mikayla. Anna's Hummingbird.

Sharp, Charles J. - Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Veronesi, Francesco - Black Phoebe - Colombia_S4E4664, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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