Songs in a City Soundscape: Tips for Birding by Ear

Both sexes of the Northern Cardinal (here, a male) sing throughout the year. Photo: Kenneth Cole Schneider/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


This article is a digital-only story from the winter 2022-2023 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Hillarie O'Toole

A car horn sounds in the wee hours of the morning, someone having tripped the alarm. Brakes squeak, music plays, a helicopter whirs, a jet whooshes, a dog barks, a basketball steadily taps the ground. The pulse of city life is told in thick layers composed of varying pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. The sounds of humans busy about work and play. Sounds that can be urgent or joyful or mundane. City dwellers who visit the country often feel a void in the absence of these unceasing stimulations. 
The early days of the pandemic brought a rare quiet to New York City that allowed us to listen more intently to the sounds of nature, sounds that had been there all along and were now beautifully and hauntingly exposed. As our activities are returning to pre-pandemic levels, so too are decibels rising, and it requires more focus to listen for birdsong. Just as music-lovers can train their ears to identify chords, rhythmic patterns, and a variety of instruments, so too can birders learn to differentiate between a great diversity of bird vocalizations.

The American Robin produces a high-pitched call that alerts other birds to the presence of a bird of prey. <a href="" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Beaumontpete/<a href="" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
If you are new to birding by ear, it can be helpful to first think of bird vocalizations as belonging to two distinct categories: calls and songs. “All birds produce one or more calls,” says NYC Audubon’s Tod Winston, “which tend to be simple vocalizations that may have specific meanings.” These meanings can be as specific as “Danger! There’s an aerial raptor!” in the case of one high-frequency American Robin call. 
“Songs, on the other hand, the exclusive creation of songbirds, tend to be longer and more melodic, and are heard the most during breeding season,” Tod explains. While it is typically male birds that sing as they stake out their territory or seek a mate, females of many species are also known to sing. By learning the songs and calls of frequently encountered birds in the City, you can quickly broaden your repertoire and begin to eliminate the “usual suspects” when you hear new sounds emerge. 
The male Northern Cardinal serves as a harbinger of springtime with his clear and oscillating whistle-like song, while the calls shared between males, females, and young are sharper, repeated chip notes. If you’ve been roused too early in the morning in the springtime by a cheerful, repetitive melody that sounds something like “Toodle-oo, how are you,” it’s a good chance the singer was the American Robin. The alarm calls of robins, in comparison, are much more percussive, reminiscent of someone saying “beep, beep!”

The male Northern Mockingbird can master a repertoire of over 100 songs. <a href="" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Rick Cameron<a href="" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
Another dominant singer in the city soundscape is the Northern Mockingbird, who sings with boundless energy from rooftops, light posts, and branches throughout the five boroughs. The mockingbird’s song is a repetitive display of other bird songs and calls that this mimic has learned and added to its repertoire, with males often accumulating hundreds of songs in a lifetime. The species’ calls, on the other hand, are brief, and sound somewhat like someone issuing a stern scolding, “Tsk, tsk!” It can be fun to think of yourself as a mockingbird as you increase your own memory of birdsongs.
The tone quality, or timbre, of vocalizations is another way to identify birds by ear. Calls and songs can be described in many ways, such as clear, buzzy, or raspy:
  • The calls of the Blue Jay are quite varied, ranging from brazen and brassy to clear metallic whistle tones, which can ring out through the City streets, high above the bustle of traffic. 
  • The tone quality of the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s call might be described as “nasal,” as though the small bird is laughing with a stuffy nose: “ha, ha, ha.” 
  • The high-pitched calls of Cedar Waxwings, in contrast, are buzzy and whistle-like; you will often hear these very social birds before you spot them high in the canopy. 
  • The trilling, purr-like, elongated rolled “r” sound of the Red-bellied Woodpecker is another delightful and easily recognizable call that you can listen for in many of the wooded areas in City parks year-round.

The many calls of the Blue Jay are heard in most New York City parks. Photo: Adrienne Elliot/Audubon Photography Awards

Another birding by ear tip is to make use of mnemonics, or little shortcuts and phrases that you can match with particular birds in order to remember the singer behind the sound. “Beer, beer, beer,” says the Black-throated Blue Warbler. “Teacher, teacher, teacher,” says the Ovenbird. “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet,” says the Yellow Warbler. There are also birds that conveniently say their name, such as the Black-capped Chickadee, the Eastern Wood-Pewee and the Eastern Phoebe
As you deepen your knowledge, it can be helpful to keep a journal, tracking the time of year when you hear certain songs and calls. You will begin to associate sounds with the seasons: the cheery chatter of Chimney Swifts when they return in early spring, versus the “squeaky bicycle wheel” song of the Blackpoll Warbler, signaling the nearing end of spring migration. In your journal, you can make notes of your own mnemonics and ways to identify the bird sounds that speak most to you.
As someone who often has a difficult time spotting birds, I am always thrilled to hear them, identify them by ear, and know they are there. But as city traffic, construction, and public events increase, it is getting harder and harder to pick out sounds from the layers. We are just beginning to learn how human-produced noise, just as with light pollution, can impact bird migration, breeding, and roosting.

The high twittering of Chimney Swifts often alerts one to their presence, high in the sky above. <a href="" target="_blank">Photo</a>: John Leszczynksi/<a href="" target="_blank" >CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Author and biologist David George Haskell addresses the effects of human-produced noise on wildlife in his newest book Sounds Wild and Broken. When asked how birds are most profoundly affected by human created sounds in urban spaces, he responded, “Traffic noise stresses birds so much that even the health of nestlings suffers. These effects persist into adult life where they interact with other urban stressors such as chemical pollution to reduce the vitality, fecundity, and, sometimes, the longevity of individuals. Noise also smothers songs, eroding the vital sonic bonds that keep bird populations healthy. Birds are also adaptable and, in some species, sing louder and at higher frequencies to vault their songs over the mire of engine sound. All this is a reminder that noise can have profound effects on health. The same is true for humans and inequity in exposure to noise is a major form of environmental injustice in New York City and other urban areas.” 
While we take the time to listen for birdsong and appreciate the beauty and joy it can bring to our lives, we might also take the time to be more considerate neighbors to  birds, to ensure their voices will be heard by future generations. 
Again, Haskell shared some advice on achieving this balance: “Driving less, laying off the horn, and not making excess noise all help, but the future of noise in cities will mostly be determined by policies and engineering, not by adjustments made by individuals acting alone. These systemic actions include de-emphasizing private vehicle use and airplanes, quieting buses and trains, continuing to engineer quieter engines, reducing vehicle speeds, and creating greenspaces and streetscapes where soundscapes are dominated by human and bird voices.” 
The beauty of the city soundscape is its diversity. Let us move forward with open ears and open minds to create an environment where all voices can be heard and appreciated.

Read our review of David George Haskell’s new book, Sounds Wild and Broken.