Describing What You Hear

Describing What You Hear

Recently a friend alerted me to a post on the “ID-Frontiers” listserv by Christopher Hill in which he made a statement very dear to my heart:

In this day and age, I’m always surprised at the contrast between the level at which many advanced birders discuss plumage cues and the much more primitive way a lot of us approach sounds. I doubt I could convince many people on this forum of the identity of a vagrant by saying “but it looked just like the picture in my field guide!” (maybe if I repeated it?) but that type of argument is offered much more often, even routinely, in discussions of sounds.

He then apologizes for sounding like a preachy blowhard.  (Hoo boy!  If those are the words of a preachy blowhard, then I’ve got a lot to apologize for!)

I couldn’t agree more with his argument, which neatly summarizes the raison d’etre of this entire blog.  I also wrote a Birding magazine article a few years ago that created a conceptual framework intended to help people describe sounds better.  But reading Chris’s comments, I realized that a conceptual framework may not be of immediate use to people hearing bird sounds in the field.  What they need are a set of instructions.  So I decided to write a few.

How to Describe A Bird Sound in Six Easy Steps

  1. If you can, make an audio recording. Use your cell phone.  Use your camera on the video setting.  Use a cheap voice recorder.  Use your laptop.  Use any device that can possibly record sound.  If you don’t have one, that’s OK — but if you have any audio recording capability whatsoever, don’t proceed to Step 2 until you’ve done Step 1!
  2. Count the notes. (If they are too fast or too many to count, make a note of that.)
  3. Figure out which notes are repeated, if any. (Remember: trills are made of notes that are repeated, too fast to count.)
  4. Write down nonsense words that sound like what the bird is saying (that is, onomatopoeia). Try not to use real words or phrases, as you’re likely to get closer to the original sound if you let yourself break the rules of English.  Spend some time on this, and try to get the transcription as close to the original as possible.
  5. Compare the sound you’re hearing to similar sounds. These could be bird sounds or non-bird sounds — for example, “like a robin song, but without any pauses”; “like the squeak of a shoe on a gym floor”; “like an electronic video game.”  Spend some time on this also — come up with multiple comparisons if at all possible.
  6. Sketch the sound. If the pitch of the sound goes up, draw a line that goes up.  If it then goes down, draw a line that goes down.  You get the idea.  Put each note on the page, the way it sounds to your ear.

So, for the record, that’s

  • Audio
  • Count
  • Repeat
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Similar
  • Sketch

Or ACROSS for short.

OK, I know, that’s cheesy.  But seriously, these are the steps to follow in the field.  Don’t just settle for one of the steps — do them all!  Try them with common birds.  Try them with birds you don’t know (I’ll be happy to help you identify the results).  Try them when documenting rarities.

You don’t need to know any fancy terminology, have any musical training, or use any “conceptual frameworks” when describing bird sounds — you just need to sit down and take the time to do each step carefully.  It will change the way you listen, and it will change the way you talk about what you hear.

11 thoughts on “Describing What You Hear

  1. Wonderful!

    This post is definitely one to bookmark.

    I have kept your Birding article (Describing Bird Sounds in Words) in my files. But some parts were a bit hard to understand–or hard for me to describe to others what I am hearing–especially the tonality section. [By the way, your link to the pdf needs “http://” in front of your link so it looks for it on the ABA site and not the EarBirding site.]

    Great stuff. Birds are gifted with not just sounds, but music. It is sad that more people do not even try to learn bird songs, calls, and other noises. I have often thought that when my hearing becomes too poor, I won’t enjoy bird “watching” any more.

  2. I saw that posting on ID-Frontiers and agree that it was a great analogy and very compelling argument for taking sound description and analysis more seriously. I really like this stepwise approach and your previous posts about describing bird sounds, but I have a question about using nonsense words. Do you have any suggestions or guidelines on how to do it well? I’m thinking of some field guides that use what seem to me to be indecipherable nonsense words, with long strings of letters I can’t even begin to pronounce. As a result, I can’t reconstruct what the bird song actually sounds like. I get particularly hung up on long strings of consonants that never occur in real words. Any thoughts on this?


    Bruce Rideout
    San Diego, CA

  3. Greg, thanks for noting the broken link. It’s also good to know which parts of my article are working for people and which are difficult to understand. Tone quality is indeed a difficult subject and I’ve made progress in my thinking about how to analyze and describe it, but more work remains.

    Bruce, you’ve asked a terrific question. My first suggestion for how to do it well is to read my post called “The Vowels of Birds,” which may give you some good ideas for how to use vowels in your transliterations. When it comes to long strings of consonants, I’d try to avoid them — write nonsense words that are, at least, easy to pronounce. I’ve been doing some thinking about the use of consonants in transliterations, and that will be the subject of a future post (or posts)… sorry to make you wait for a more definitive answer!

  4. Congratulations for this very useful post. I think that describing what we hear is difficult because in human beings vision took precedence over all other senses.
    I’d like to add a seventh step to your method, and I would even place it in second position: Imitate what you hear. Of course it proves to be almost impossible for any sophisticated bird song. But it’s easy if the song/call consists of only a few notes. I see three major advantages of it: first, it helps to memorize the sound, with its precise pitch; a rising line may correspond to a sound of any pitch, and after some time it will be difficult to remember exactly what the sketch on your field notebook corresponds to. Second, it helps to analyze the sound: when you imitate it, either by whistling of by speaking, you can much more easily break it down into individual notes, and thus analyze the “shape” of the song (the sound becomes not only auditory, since you produce it yourself). And third, if the bird is too far away for your weak voice recorder, make a recording of your own imitation! The first record of the White-winged Potoo (Nyctibius leucopterus) for French Guiana could be identified many years later and certified thanks to such an imitation on a voice recorder: the sonagram of the imitation fitted perfectly those of natural songs!

  5. This is a great post. I am one of those birders who is getting pretty good at visual descriptions and isn’t good at all with sounds. In fact, the only birds whose calls I’m really familiar with are birds I already know well. Identifying a bird by call alone is very intimidating to me. Thanks for a useful framework for working with sounds.

  6. A brilliant post. Thanks. I am guilty of focusing too much of my birding life on the visual aspect of bird identification and it is only now that I have moved to China that I am appreciating just how limiting that is! I am beginning to make recordings of unfamiliar sounds and using the excellent Xeno Canto Asia site to improve my knowledge. Your guide about learning to describe what you hear is extremely helpful. Thanks again and keep up the great work! Terry, Beijing

  7. EXCELLENT post Nathan!!… I should add that after hearing an interesting unknown sound and when it is impossible to record it in the field, not only describe it, use onomatopoeia, etc.. RECORD IT from your mouth as soon as you have a recording device available!!!.. I have done this several times with unknown sounds: it is easier to ID later from an whistled imitation of the sound than from descriptions and words for me..

  8. I am relatively new to birding by ear and will bookmark this post! I so enjoy being able to i.d. birds from their vocalizations. I forget from summer to summer, and have to review the different songs from time to time, but every year I add a few new birds to my ear-list!! Thanks for this wonderful post. ~karen

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