As the days lengthen, I can’t help but anticipate the arrival of the avian nesting season and the morning chorus of bird song that thrills us all. Male songbirds sing vigorously to attract a mate and then to ward off other males.

Males of different species of songbirds have distinctive songs. It’s easy to identify a white-throated sparrow by its “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” song. Separating red-eyed vireos, blue-headed vireos and Philadelphia vireos by song is more challenging. Nevertheless, with practice and experience, the vast majority of male songbirds can be identified by their songs.

A birder can also use ears effectively in identifying birds during the winter. Outside of the breeding season, males typically do not sing. However, most birds have distinctive call notes used to communicate with other members of their species. In today’s column, I will describe some of the distinctive calls of Maine winter birds.

Everyone can recognize our state bird, the black-capped chickadee, by its “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. In the winter, flocks of chickadees often contain other species whose presence can be detected by their call notes. You can identify a white-breasted nuthatch by its nasal “yank yank” call. Usually the call is given as a pair of notes. Its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch, gives a series of notes that sound like the noise made by a toy horn.

Brown creepers are cryptic birds yet common birds in Maine. Their mottled brown plumage on their upper parts makes them magically disappear on the tree trunks they climb looking for insects. However, their presence is often revealed to an experienced birder by the high-pitched, buzzy “seet” note. One you learn to recognize this call note, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll detect the presence of a brown creeper.

Members of the crow family are easy to identify by their calls. Who doesn’t know the “caw” of an American crow? Common ravens have a wide variety of raspy croaks and grunts. All of their calls have a characteristic sound as you can appreciate if you listen to enough of these large songbirds. Blue jays are best known for their “jay jay jay” calls. Other blue jay notes include a sound similar to rusty pump handle and a “wheedle-wheedle-wheedle” call.


Woodpeckers give themselves away with their call notes. The downy woodpecker gives a soft “pick” note, befitting its small size. The larger hairy woodpecker gives a stronger, sharper “peek” note.

Finches are social, mobile birds. Flocks often pass high overhead, making visual identification tough. Knowing the calls can allow you to identify these birds.

Our most familiar finch is the American goldfinch. In flight, goldfinches give a call note that can be represented as “per-chick-o-ree” or “potato chip.” Goldfinches also give a rather whiny “chi ee” call as well.

The pine siskin, like the goldfinch, is a small finch. Sporadically common in Maine, it has an absolutely distinctive call. It’s a buzzy note that screeches upward. Think of it as an upslurred “zreeee.”

Two medium-sized finches, the house finch and the purple finch, occur regularly in our area. It’s easy to study the calls of house finches as they frequent feeders. House finches have a call that can be written as “cheet.” It is a sweet note, often repeated several times when a bird takes flight.

The visually similar purple finch has a much softer note. Usually given in flight, the note can be described as a soft “pit.”

Trying to learn bird notes by reading descriptions of what they sound like is a challenge. A much better way to learn the calls is to let the birds be your teachers. When you hear a call you don’t recognize, try to track the bird down and identify it by sight. You can also find recordings of bird calls and songs at

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College and perches in South China. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:


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