Written By Joshua VanBrakle.

Posted on December 21st, 2015.

Share it!

Last spring I was hiking in the woods, and I had a realization. The spring migrants had arrived, and the forest was alive with birdsong. I knew there were many species around me, but to me, their songs just sounded like a jumble.

1.26.16 image1

If you’ve ever wanted to learn bird calls but didn’t know where to start, Birding by Ear is what you’ve been waiting for.

Last spring I was hiking in the woods, and I had a realization. The spring migrants had arrived, and the forest was alive with birdsong. I knew there were many species around me, but to me, their songs just sounded like a jumble.

The next day I was in the office, at my seat next to a window. A bird sang outside, but I kept on typing. My fellow forester Tom Foulkrod, though, jumped up and ran to the window. “An oriole!” he cried. “That’s the first one I’ve heard this season.”

Because I didn’t know the birds, I couldn’t even hear them. But Tom could pick them up and enjoy them.

That was the day I decided to learn bird calls.

But where to begin? I knew exactly one bird call: the honking Canada goose. How was I supposed to master dozens of birds?

I asked Tom how he’d learned, and he said he’d used tapes of bird calls played in alphabetical order. The blunt-force memorization worked, but it had been extremely difficult.

Tom’s experience sounded miserable, and I was in no hurry to subject myself to it. All summer I procrastinated, not learning a single species.

Finally, in desperation, I decided to bite the bullet and get the massive list Tom described. I went online to make my purchase, and that’s when I found Birding by Ear.

Birding by Ear is, simply put, brilliant. I can’t imagine a better way to learn bird calls than this 3-CD set. Why? Two reasons. First, instead of a monotonous list of “black-capped chickadee, [call], blue jay, [call],” it organizes birds by similar sounds, like “whistlers” and “chippers and trillers.” The narrator introduces each bird and then highlights key sounds to listen for, like describing the black-and-white warbler’s song as “like a squeaky wheel turning round and round.” This structure is a fantastic learning aid, and it helped me master the differences between similar-sounding birds like northern flicker and pileated woodpecker.

The second reason Birding by Ear is so great is its third CD. Here it switches from ID to quiz mode. Instead of birds by sound, it plays them by habitat, and it doesn’t tell you what they are. It’s an ideal test for your learning.

I bought Birding by Ear in October 2015, and I listen to it in the car on my way to and from work. My first time through the quiz in November, I could recall maybe 30 of the 85 species on the CDs. When I ran the quiz again in December, I was up to 70. Now here at the end of January, it’s rare for me to miss more than one or two.

If you’re into the outdoors like I am, Birding by Ear is one of those rare products that can change your life. I’m super-excited for the spring migrants this year. Never again will I walk through the April woods in a jumble.

Birding by Ear’s only limitation is that because it spends more time with each species, it isn’t comprehensive. The set has about a third of the species in Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Songs. Conspicuously absent are any ducks, though there are a few water birds like green-backed heron and American bittern. Still, from a beginner’s perspective, it hits the common birds you’re likely to encounter on woods walks. More important, I’m sure I learned the 85 species on these CDs far better and faster than I ever would have with the straight-up field guide.

If you want more species, there is a second 3-CD set, More Birding by Ear. I believe it’s no longer in production, though you can find it used online. If you live in a western state, there’s also a Birding by Ear for western North America. I haven’t had a chance to listen to either of these, so I can’t say whether they’re as useful as the set I bought.

I can’t recommend Birding by Ear enough. If you want to learn bird calls, but you think there’s no way you could ever remember them, I encourage you to give these CDs a try. Your walks will never be the same.


Share it!