There are always birds around, but much of the time they're hidden away in the branches of a tree or thick brush. But even if you can't see a bird, you still have a great chance of identifying it if you listen carefully to its call. Figuring out how to remember the songs of bird species is an important part of being a birder. As Fernbank Science Center notes, "Learning birds’ voices can extend your awareness and knowledge of the bird life in your world. You will always know what birds are around even without looking."
These mnemonic devices aren't written in stone, so you can come up with your own ways to easily identify a call and set it apart from similar calls from other species. After all, the purpose is to find what works for you. You can simply pay attention to features of the song, including rhythm and tempo, and come up with a phrase that you can recall easily.
The key to success is making sure you can remember your mnemonic device. Many times birders use nonsense words that remind them of the quality of the song, such as "tzee-tzee-tzee-tzeeeo" for the American redstart. However, by coming up with a sentence the bird might say, you will have an easier time remembering.
For instance, the indigo bunting calls out in coupled phrases, and birders remember the song of the indigo bunting with the mnemonic device, "fire; fire; where? where? here; here; see it? see it?" And for the warbling vireo, which has complicated warbling phrases, it's helpful to think of the bird saying this to a caterpillar: "If I sees you; I will seize you; and I'll squeeze you till you squirt." Humor never hurts when you're trying to remember a phrase!
Most field guides will list mnemonic phrases for birds, and Stanford has a list of mnemonic devices for a few dozen species. Here are a few of our favorites:
The rhythm, duration and pitch of hoots can help you distinguish owl species. For the barred owl, just think of them as aspiring chefs looking for a job opening. They continually ask, "Who-cooks-for-you; who-cooks-for-you-all?" You can hear it for yourself in the audio clip below.
It should be really easy to remember the mnemonic device for the chickadee's call, since the device is the species' very name. The bird's call sounds like, "chk-a-dee-dee-dee."
Black-throated green warbler
This species loves spending time in coniferous forests, and that's how you can remember its song. The mnemonic device is, "trees-trees-murmuring-trees." A less visual but just as accurate device used by birders is, "zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee."
Like the chickadee, the bobwhite's name is your big clue for remembering its call. It sounds like, "bob-white!" Another device is, "toot-sweet!" which is totes sweet.
Think of this little songbird as the most welcoming of feathered friends, with a song that says, "Pleased-pleased-pleased-pleased-ta-meetcha."
This odd-looking bird is a master of camouflage, but its distinctive call gives its identity away. (Photo: Dick Daniels/Wikipedia)
The largest of the nightjar species, chuck-will's-widow is named after its call, which sounds like it's calling out "chuck will's widow." These birds are found by day lying on the ground or on a horizontal branch, perfectly camouflaged by their surroundings. But at dawn and dusk when they become active you'll hear the call.
The meadowlark is famous for its song, but if you really need a way to remember it, think about when birds start singing in full force: "spring-of-the-year." Or, you can think of the song as saying, "but-I-DO-love-you."
Great horned owl
The hooting of the great horned owl can be heard at dusk, through the night and at dawn, so it only makes sense to think of the owl as asking, "Who's awake? Me too."
Considering the name of this species, it's interesting that the mnemonic device for remembering its song is, "Why don'tcha come to me? Here I am right near you." The question and response help the listener remember that there are two phrases sung at different pitches.
Things can get a little tricky when your mnemonic devices are similar. The red-eyed vireo asks the same sort of question as the hermit thrush, "Where are you? And here I am." But the difference in syllables is what sets these birds apart. Have a listen and then compare the songs: