Living among the raucous dawn chorus, the lonely call of a resident barn owl, and among thousands of trees, I grew up loving birds and their songs. It’s those early years that inspire me to write about birds and share my devotion to them. Following are five birdsongs I believe, and maybe you will too, are among some of the prettiest, most distinctive, and interesting.
But first, it’s worth a minute to answer a few frequently asked questions about birdsongs.
What is the difference between a birdsong and a bird call?
The short answer is not much.
A bird call is short and simple. Birds use calls for a variety of reasons:
- warn other birds of danger;
- say, “here I am!”;
- beg for food when they are young;
- stay in touch with the flock when flying.
A song is longer and more complex. Males are typically the singers, but we know there are species of birds with singing females. Although there isn’t much research about them (click here to see how you can help fix that), we do know about 660 songbird species have female singers.
How do birds learn to sing?
While the basic note calls are instinctive and remain the same within a species, many songbirds have a window in time during which they must learn their species’ unique songs. In a highly complex process, birds learn from listening to the male parent or nearby neighbors. It’s upon this template that individual birds will create variability in their unique songs.
How do you describe birdsongs?
David Sibley, author of the well-respected Sibley Guide to Birds, writes it is customary to use three variables to describe a birdsong:
Pitch (high or low) and tempo (speed) are measurable and objective features of birdsongs. Quality, however, is subjective and impressionistic:
In the narrowest sense, the quality of a bird’s voice would refer strictly to the tonal quality of the sound. Musicians call this “timbre”, and it allows us to distinguish a trumpet from a violin from a flute, even when all are playing the same note, and even though we cannot describe the differences in words… [W]hen birders refer to the “quality” of a bird song, we are almost always using it in a broader sense to mean our overall impression of the song…
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
All this is to say that any description of birdsongs, including the ones offered here, are interpretations. You may hear something different… and that’s fine.
Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus)
The eastern United States and a small swath of central and southeastern Canada are the summer home of the Eastern whip-poor-will. They migrate to the southeastern United States and to eastern Mexico and Central America.
The Eastern whip-poor-will’s name comes from the three distinctive notes of its song—whip-poor-will. And they sing these lonely, distinct notes repeatedly. In its enthusiasm, one whip was recorded singing 28,898 songs in a single night.
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)
During the summer months, Baltimore orioles live in the eastern United States. They’re less common in the central U.S. and Canada. Most migrate to neotropical climates in Central and South America, but some stay in the southeastern U.S.
To me, the song of the Baltimore oriole is pure. It’s full, rich, loud, and happy. Their whistles sound like flutes and boldly cut through the springtime air. The male’s song is “a short series of paired notes, repeated 2–7 times, lasting 1–2 seconds.” The female sings a shorter song.
See also: Top 3 Worst Bird Feeding Mistakes
Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
You can find the Western meadowlark in western and central North America, and as far south as northern Mexico. While the western and Eastern meadowlarks may look similar, they have very different songs and calls.
Unlike the eastern meadowlark’s simple whistles, the western meadowlark is melodious and almost flute-like. Having between 10 and 12 complex songs in their repertoire, its “primary” song begins with one to six whistles and slides down the musical scale to a series of between one and five gurgling warbles.
Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
The bobolink breeding territory is the upper northern tier of the U.S. as far west as upper Idaho. They migrate through Florida in flocks to southern South America. Because of habitat loss, their numbers have significantly declined in recent decades.
Audubon describes the male’s song as bubbling, tinkling, joyous, tumbling, gurgling phrases with each note at a different pitch. That’s a lot of adjectives. To me, it’s a fast, complicated, and beautiful composition.
And while there is no known recording, there is literature to suggest that the female bobolink also sings.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
The rose-breasted grosbeak is common to eastern and central North America. Like many songbirds, it heads to Central and South America for the winter. But unlike many birds, the rose-breasted grosbeak engages in a rare behavior—both the male and female will sing while sitting on their nest.
I can understand why some people compare the songs of the rose-breasted grosbeak and the American robin. The songs of both birds are full of whistles and chirps, but the grosbeak seems to have a quicker tempo and a wider selection of notes, about 20, and sounds more melodious.
A Chorus Among the Trees
Birdsongs have long inspired some of the most romantic poets, insightful authors, and gifted songwriters. While threatened by climate change, deforestation, pesticides, and outdoor cats, birds and their songs are among the few direct experiences of wildlife we can still enjoy. We should—and need—to do everything in our power to preserve them.
If you want to learn more about birdsongs and how to identify them, Audubon offers a Birding by Ear series that provides significant information and guidance.