Bird songs: music to your ears

January 20 2020


Bird songs: music to your ears

© Andrew Spencer / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Jessie Barry, one of the world’s most renowned birders, broke the North American record for most bird sightings within 24 hours in 2013, together with Team Sapsucker. However, she is a down-to-earth and modest person. She loves to discover the birds in the area and get excellent sound recordings to broaden the database at the Macaulay Library where she is the Program Manager. Accompanied by her 12x50 binoculars, Jessie constantly notices the birds in her surroundings. Excellent auditory senses and the willingness to start learning bird songs at a very young age helped Jessie to become the expert she is today. As inspiring teacher, Jessie is inviting everyone to start birding – no matter when, where or how.




You are one of the world’s best birders not only thanks to your excellent sight but also thanks to your refined auditory senses. How much do you rely on recognizing sound when birding?

All the time. If you focus on having the ability to learn different songs, it becomes more fun. On one level, birding by ear makes you a better sensor. You are better at detecting all the birds in the area and thus become a better citizen scientist. Identifying birds by ear helps me to deliver more accurate representations of what species are present.

From a general birding experience, it is very rewarding to be able to identify sounds and calls. I get frustrated when I do not recognize them. That frustration spurs me on to put in the hard work to learn them. It is very doable to learn bird sounds. You can get an example of every species from the database of the Macaulay library. There are spectrograms for visual learners, which makes memorizing sounds a lot easier by looking at the graph of frequency and time. These visualizations are a big trade-in in Merlin now. We are trying to make it easier for anyone interested.



Most people find it very difficult to identify birds by their song. What would you recommend to somebody who has little experience in birding? How can they start to use their hearing in order to recognize different species?

Use the apps. And do study seriously. You have to invest time and practice. Like all other skills, it is work to learn it, but there are great tools out there that can help you. I stumbled into Dick Walton’s “Birding by Ear“ at a very young age and learned to hear the differences in pitch, tone, and patterns in vocalizations . I listened to those before falling asleep. At the age of 15, it was not considered cool to be listening to bird calls and songs over and over, but fortunately, I had these handful of friends who liked the same books and CDs. I found my people and knew that I can be okay with this.



© Cullen Hank/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

What equipment is necessary to have a wonderful birding experience?

I always have my EL 12x50 binoculars with me. Most people are surprised, but they serve me well. A 8-10x32 would be a good choice too. In the end, it does not matter which model you choose as long as you bring binoculars. For waterbirds and shorebirds, I recommend a spotting scope. When we go birding at the lake, the BTX and ATX spotting scopes are always with us. However, my husband and I are constantly fighting over the BTX (laughs). It is so comfortable to use. I take my sound recording equipment with me, when I go birding on my own. If there are other people with me, my companions might be blissfully unaware of the noise they are creating by grinding the soil or rummaging in their pockets.


Further information on Jessie Barry

Looking to become a better birder? Then check out our articles about "Birding Basics 1" and "Birding Basics 2"

If you want to be supported by a powerful gadget, then find out more about the digital guide. Starting in spring 2020 documenting, identifying and sharing bird discoveries has never been so easy.

Does your strength lie in app development? Then you may consider developing an app that unleashes the power of the digital guide. For further details, go to


In the meantime, stay tuned at #digitalguide for more inspiring insights in bird identification.


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