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Birding By Ear: Different Ways to Describe Bird Songs

By Ana Gabrielle Alcantara

Have you ever encountered an unknown bird and been amazed by its melodious sound? Did you try to quickly jot it down in your nature journal only to find yourself stumped on how to express it in words? Don’t worry. By the end of this article, you will be better equipped to describe that cool bird sound and you won’t just write “chirping” or “tweet tweet”.

There have been numerous methods throughout history on how bird watchers wrote down bird sounds. Before proper equipment and recording devices were made, musical notations were, in fact, used to visualize and describe the melodic songs of birds. This method, however, proved to be inefficient in accurately portraying all bird sounds. Not all of these sounds are melodic in nature nor are they confined to human standards of vocalizations through musical scales, time period, key, and pitch. While this portrayal was useful to discern different species which have melodic songs of varying pitch and complexity, it fails to properly illustrate the quick chirps or the buzzy sounds that birds can produce.

Most published guidebooks nowadays include a transcription of bird calls and songs. Observers can transcribe the jeering “ngeg-gyeg-gyeg-gyeg” call of the Collared Kingfisher or the musical “tswi-tswit-tititititi” of the Olive-backed Sunbird. These onomatopoeic descriptions are highly useful. Vocal qualities and capabilities can serve as further indication and verification of the bird’s identity. However, it should be noted that despite efforts to standardize the transcription of bird sounds, this method still remains subjective. Transliteration alone can be interpreted differently from reader to reader and may cause bewilderment, especially for first-time observers of an unknown bird.

As such, additional written descriptions of bird sound better portray vocalizations. These make use of colorful words to convey the musicality, pitch, tempo, timbre, and volume of vocalizations through phonetics. Adjectives such as shrill, piercing, or shrieking add depth to pitch while a chitter, chatter, chutter, or clatter can evoke a more specific form and timbre of the sound. 

Watch a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker call at the 30 second mark of the video.
Video by Maia Tanedo.

Tone quality, the distinctive identity of a sound, can be categorized into seven basic qualities. Whistles are clear, musical sustained sounds that are reminiscent of wind instruments such as the flute. An example can be heard in the consecutive ascending and descending notes of Golden-bellied Gerygone. Hoots, commonly heard in owls, are low-pitched whistles. Clicks are sudden and quick bursts of sound that can be commonly heard in woodpeckers, such as Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers. Burrs and buzzes are rapidly repeating beats that can have hoarse, vibrating, or whirring intonations.  An example can be heard in the Philippine Bulbul. Nasal sounds, which can be seen in a call of the Collared Kingfisher, seem whiny or yelping. Noisy sounds are similar to the static noise on televisions or the rushing of waterfalls while polyphonic sounds can be perceived as a mesh of two original sounds blended together. Examples of these are Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Pine Siskin respectively.

Other descriptors which can be used to further illustrate bird sounds include the highness or lowness of pitch. The length of bird sounds can be as short as a click or as long as a melodious serenade. Listen to hear the speed of the notes, whether the notes accelerate to a trill or decelerate into pauses. Notice the occurrence of repetition: do they have constant notes or have irregular, uncountable warbles?

Being able to discern the identity of a bird through hearing alone is satisfying and being able to share this experience is even more so. Bird watching not only entails following your target bird through the thick of the forest but also involves listening closely to the symphony around you and immersing yourself in nature’s repertoire.

You may scan the QR codes below to listen to some bird calls

SpeciesQR Code
Collared kingfisher 
Olive-backed Sunbird
Golden-bellied Gerygone
Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker
Philippine Bulbul (buzz)
Collared Kingfisher (nasal)
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Pine Siskin


Marler, Peter R., and Hans Slabbekoorn. Nature’s music: the science of birdsong. Elsevier, 2004.

Miller, Edward H. “Acoustic signals of shorebirds.” Victoria, British Columbia: Royal British (1992).

Pieplow, Nathan. “Earbirding.” Earbirding – Recording, Identifying, and Interpreting Bird Sounds, 2014,

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