Every spring I think I've finally learned some new bird songs, then I forget most of them over the fall and winter. Birds sing more in the spring than at any other time of year. And during the rest of the year, I guess I fill up that part of my brain with other things.
Why do I want to learn the songs? Birds are small, and don't hang out at eye level waiting for you to see them. But when you hear their songs, you know to look for them.
Even if I never find the bird, the forest seems fuller. "Cool, there's that here," I can say. I inevitably picture the individual birds in my mind's eye, in all their diversity -- not just generic "birds."
By far the best way to learn bird songs is in the field -- hearing the song and then seeing the bird. But, this winter, I'm going to try to get a head start and start listening before the birds start singing. I've been having fun exploring several quizzes as a way to practice.
Beginner: Quizzes at Into the air and The nature of hiking each include 10 very common birds. Once you get these bird calls down you'll be amazed how often you hear them when you're outside.
eNature's quiz plays a bird song and gives you three choices (with both pictures and names) for which bird it is. They draw from the library of about 550 North American birds, narrowed down for your zipcode. The large selection of birds makes this quiz more challenging, as you're more likely to run into birds you don't know.
Dendroica plays a song, and gives you a text list of 6 or 18 birds to choose from. After you answer (whether correctly or incorrectly), it shows you a large picture of the bird you guessed and plays its song. You can't limit birds to your area; there are an awful lot of shorebirds and western birds in here that we never see. But you can easily skip to the next song if you don't feel like puzzling through.
Larkwire has two modes. Both keep track of which songs you've missed and comes back to them more often. For that alone this program might be worth paying for. In "Gallery" mode, you click on the bird picture that matches a song (shown here); in "Field" mode you don't have the benefit of multiple choice. Larkwire is very attractive, with clear pictures and high-quality recordings. Check out the free demo, which includes about 8 birds. Pricing for a fuller collection varies by how many birds you want included in your package, from $3.95 for 25 backyard birds, to $44.95 for 600 land and shore birds, and many levels in between. It's available both as an iPad/iPhone app and a web program that you can access from computers as well as mobile devices.
Have you used any of these programs, or any others, to learn bird songs? Leave us a comment!