Guide to North American Bird Songs and Sounds: Explanations

Navigation of this identification guide
The song identification guide is designed so you can jump right in. Hopefully you already experienced this ease of use, but if you are reading this, perhaps a more detailed description of how to navigate the guide will help.

The identification guide presents you with a series of choices on the qualities or attributes of the sound you are trying to identify. Some of the choices are quite objective (e.g., number of different notes in the sound), while other choices may be more subjective: what sounds harsh or unmusical to you may seem quite pleasant to me. Below I give some working definitions of the terms commonly used in the guide. At each point, pick the choice that most closely corresponds to the attributes of the sound you are trying to identify. Each choice has a short description of that sound attribute and a listing of the species which will be included if you pick that choice. You can highlight a species in the select box, and press the 'Select bird' button to display a link to the species' sound file and a description of the sound you will hear.
As you continue through the guide, making choices at each point, you will exclude more and more of the bird sounds. You will finally arrive at a listing of species and descriptions of the sounds in the sound file. All of these sounds share the attributes you chose, and the guide does not break this group down further. The species name is a link to the sound file described.
The attributes shared by the sounds and songs included are displayed at the top of each page. This is also a navigational history which summarizes the choices you have already made. You can use this history to backtrack to particular choices, so you may try different ones. If you don't see what you expect, back up a try a different choice (e.g. my 'high pitched' may correspond to your 'moderately pitched', or what I think of has 'harsh' you may think of as 'melodic'). Do you disagree with my classification of a certain sound? Let me know at the email address below.
I must add some qualifications about use of this guide. The sound you are trying to identify may not exist among the selections, but the guide will allow you to find sounds similar in some sense to the one you are trying to identify. Though you may know which bird is singing, the sound presented here may bear no resemblance to what you are hearing. Most species of birds make many different sounds, and there may be regional dialects. Finally, some birds can mimic the sounds of others. It's always best to try to see who is doing the singing!

Working definitions of the terms commonly used in the guide
The descriptions of sounds and songs and their attributes generally follow their use in these references: Pitch
Objective definitions of high-pitched vs. low-pitched sounds would necessarily involve measurements of wavelengths, which would be difficult for most birders! If a choice of 'high-pitched' does not lead to sounds like to one you are trying to identify, try 'moderately-pitched' and see if this conforms more to your sound.
Harsh sounds have many overtones, and sound croaky, raspy or buzzy, depending on whether the sound is low-, moderate- or high-pitched. Clear sounds do not have such overtones. Complicated songs may have harsh portions and clear portions.
Song pattern reflects the sequence and timing of the parts of the sound. In simple songs, a note or set of notes can be repeated quickly, such that the notes immediately follow each other, or the notes can be interspersed with pauses. A sound can be of short duration or of long duration (e.g., short chips vs. long, drawn-out calls). Complicated songs can be given as phrases, where sets of notes are separated by pauses, or a string of notes with no obvious pauses. You will see terms like these throughout the guide.

Other references of great interest include:

Saunders (1935) and Bondesen (1977) include song keys with terminologies that are quite involved and that differ somewhat from that used here.

I learn more from Kroodsma (2005) every time I read it.

I hope that this discussion will allow you to navigate the North American bird song and sound guide with relative ease. Let me know if that is not the case, and why.

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Last revision of this page 26 November 2013, by Jim Felley
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