Memorizing Bird Songs Made Easy with Mnemonics

I recall when I first heard a yellow warbler’s song; it was music against the backdrop of residential traffic in my suburban neighborhood. At the time I had no clue where the bird was and I had no idea what bird was making this sound. I took out my phone, frantically trying to find the recording app while repeating the sound in my head over and over again: “Sweet sweet sweet sweet, sweeter than sweet!”

There are many features to help birders of all skill levels identify a bird species. You’ll usually find a large part of a field guide’s description focused around structural characteristics such as silhouette, field marks, posture and size, while notes on behavior and flight pattern provide added hints about the species’ identity for birds in motion.

Red-winged blackbird (Photo by Bill Hubick)

Red-winged blackbird (Photo by Bill Hubick)

But there is one aspect of bird identification that is not easily describable in words and harder to learn by the books, and that is the sound (calls and songs) a bird makes. More often than not you may hear a bird’s call or song but never actually get a visual confirmation, and that is why learning to identify birds by sound is so important, and fun as well!

One of the tools to help with learning a bird song is mnemonics. This term is derived from an ancient Greek word μνημονικός (mnēmonikos) meaning “of memory” or “related to memory.” Mnemonic devices help learners connect unfamiliar and dissociated ideas. In the case of bird songs, mnemonics are often gimmicky phrases that help you string together the syllables and notes of a bird’s song so that you may remember its rhythm, pitch and tempo.

Let’s give one a try. Here is one bird whose song can be heard across Canada from spring through fall. Listen here >

Does it sound something like “Cheer up, cheerily, cheer up, cheerily”?

What about “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Sounds ridiculous, but I believe the mnemonic is spot on in describing the barred owl’s call! Hear it here >

Barred owl (Photo by Bill Hubick)

Barred owl (Photo by Bill Hubick)

While mnemonics can be really helpful, they don’t replace the hard work of learning by listening to recordings, going out to watch and listen, and following experienced birders out in the field. With practice (and starting with a few easily distinguishable tunes), you can earn your way to bragging rights next time someone asks you “What bird’s song is that?”

Here are two fun comics to help you remember bird songs and calls. Click to enlarge.

Birds of eastern North America (Illustration by Bird and Moon)

Birds of eastern North America (Illustration by Bird and Moon)

Birds of western North America (Illustration by Bird and Moon)

Birds of western North America (Illustration by Bird and Moon)

For more information on birding, visit our “#Howtonature series: How to bird Part One, Part Two.”

This post originally appeared on Land Lines and was written by Wendy Ho, editorial coordinator with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Main Image: Yellow Warbler (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Cartoons are posted with permission from Bird and Moon.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sammy Bryant
Samantha Bryant2 years ago

I just had to tell you, I'm a huge bird lover and I was having a bit of a bad day today and this just cheered me up so much! Thanks so much for this article :)

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Miriam Site issues

Thank you very much for sharing! Terrific!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Hadley R.
Hadley R2 years ago

Love the Links!

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper2 years ago


Elaine W.
Past Member 2 years ago

I am saving the links in the article. Thanks.

Connie O.
Connie O2 years ago

I have a habit of whistling back at the birds in my yard. They seem to answer me!