Warbler Vocalizations

Bill Young

Learning warbler vocalizations can be a great help in locating and identifying birds during the spring. Many skilled birders identify warblers by sound before they see the singer. Sometimes, they hear warblers without seeing them. Not all warblers vocalize, so you cannot rely only on sound. This is especially true during the latter stages of spring migration when an increasing number of females visit the park. although many females do vocalize. Warblers sometimes vocalize during the fall migration, but much less frequently.

Learning vocalizations is easier if you have musical skills. I have a relative who is a retired concert violinist with perfect pitch. She does not know much about birds, but once when she was on a nature walk, she could identify the key in which each bird was singing. People who lack her musical skills need to find other methods for remembering.

Birds have different types of vocalizations. Warblers and other songbirds use song to attract mates and defend territory. Much of the singing is done by males, who are saying the equivalent of come mate with me or stay off my turf. Most songbirds begin to sing in the morning at first light. They are part of what is called the dawn chorus. People who do breeding or migratory bird surveys often go into the field slightly before dawn to try to hear as many different birdsongs as possible. Around noon, you hear very little birdsong.

Calls are another type of vocalization. Most bird species who are not songbirds are capable of only simple vocalizations. Songbirds, including warblers, also are capable of these simple calls, which they use to communicate alarm, to signal danger, and to locate and be located by other individuals. Some of these calls are known as chip notes. Calls are shorter and simpler than songs. A lot of them sound alike, and they're often difficult to tell apart. Chip notes are uttered by both males and females.

Birds also utter flight calls and flight songs. Flight calls are simple notes uttered by both sexes of warblers when they are flying. Flight songs, which are also delivered in flight, are more complicated. Because most warblers migrate at night, you are unlikely to hear either flight calls or flight songs during daylight hours.

The loudness of a song might give you a clue about how high a bird is likely to be. Birds who stay on or near the ground sing louder songs in a lower pitch, because sound does not travel as well on the forest floor. Birds who spend most of their time in the treetops are more likely to sing quieter and higher-pitched songs, because there are fewer impediments to block the sound. Some of the quiet songs from the treetops can be difficult to hear.

A mnemonic is a word or phrase which can aid in remembering something. Birds do not sing words, but their vocalizations can be translated into words with similar sounds and/or accents. Some warblers have simple mnemonics to help a birder remember their vocalizations. However, most warblers do not, which can make learning warbler song difficult. For space reasons and to avoid confusion, the examples on many commercial birdsong recordings (and listed below) are the most common vocalizations of each warbler, even though a species can have many different vocalizations. The Cornell Lab's comprehensive set of recordings for the birds of North America has 18 different Magnolia Warbler songs and calls, and some sound a lot like the vocalizations of other species.

Learning warbler vocalizations is difficult and takes a lot of practice. You should spend as much time as possible listening to birdsong in the field. Don't be discouraged if you can't identify every vocalization. And don't be afraid to ask for assistance from other birders. Most birders will be glad to help you. If you go to the species pages for warblers on this website, a description of each warbler's vocalizations is near the bottom of the page. There are also links to a page where you can listen to the vocalizations.

Below are descriptions of the warbler songs heard at Monticello Park, along with hyperlinks to the Cornell Lab webpages where you can listen to the vocalizations.

The song of the Yellow-rumped Warbler is the most common one heard during the first half of spring migration, and the song of the American Redstart is one of the most common during the second half.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - A variable loose trill, usually with two parts

American Redstart - A short, sharp, quick phrase, usually with about five notes and dropping off at the end - ZEE-ZEE-ZEE-ZEE-o

Some warblers have mnemonics or song qualities that make learning them easier.

Hooded Warbler - i-wanna-rent-a-VI-de-o or a-whee-ta-whee-ta-WHEE-te-o

Black-throated Blue Warbler - I'm so la-ZEE or beer-beer-beer-BEE

Black-throated Green Warbler - Daytime song is zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee and dawn or aggressive song is Trees, Trees, Murmuring Trees

Ovenbird - teacher - teacher - teacher which gets progressively louder

Northern Parula - A buzzy trill that gets progressively louder and then drops over the top — the last drop-off makes it fairly easy to identify

Prairie Warbler - Song that goes up the musical scale but does not drop over the top

Blue-winged Warbler - bee-buzz or bee-buzz-buzz

Common Yellowthroat - witchety-witchety-witchety or which-is-it, which-is-it, which-is-it

Yellow Warbler - A perky sweet, sweet, sweet, a little more sweet

Chestnut-sided Warbler - pleased pleased pleased to MEET-cha

Magnolia Warbler - Highly variable and often sounds like a truncated Chestnut-sided song — pleased to MEET-cha

Some warblers have short songs. Some are quiet and soft, often sung from high in the trees where they can be difficult to hear.

Blackpoll Warbler - Sounds like tinkling wind chimes — an important song to know toward the end of the migration

Cape May Warbler - A high-pitched series of single notes - tink-tink-tink-tink-tink

Bay-breasted Warbler - A high-pitched series of double notes - tee-see, tee-see, tee-see

Black-and-white Warbler - Sounds like a squeaky wheel - wee-sa, wee-sa, wee-sa, wee-sa and is slightly louder than the double-noted song of the Bay-breasted

Blackburnian Warbler - A series of two-note phrases with a thin high-pitched final trill which can be difficult to hear from the treetops

Some of the more difficult warbler songs involve trills.

Worm-eating Warbler - A dry insect-like trill

Pine Warbler - A loose musical trill with a soft, lazy quality — it can be confused with Chipping and Swamp Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos

Palm Warbler - A weak buzzy trill that stays on an even pitch

Wilson's Warbler - A slow trill that drops off at the end

Some warbler songs are long and/or complex.

Nashville Warbler - A two-part see-bit see-bit see-bit see see see see, with the last phrases sounding like a slow trill

Tennessee Warbler - Three-part thucka-thucka-thucka-swit-swit-swit-swit-chew-chew-chew-chew

Louisiana Waterthrush - Long slurred introductory whistles at the beginning which descend into a jumble of quieter notes

Northern Waterthrush - Loud and evenly paced, with a CHEW-CHEW-CHEW at the end

Canada Warbler - Variable, short, and abrupt, sometimes sounding like fie-dip-pet-y-swee-DIT-che-ty, with the accent on the third syllable from the end.

Some warblers are infrequently seen at Monticello and even less frequently heard, but here are their songs.

Prothonotary Warbler - The only bird who sings tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet

Kentucky Warbler - churry-churry-churry-churry-churry — it is loud and can be confused with a Carolina Wren

Mourning Warbler - A burry pleased pleased pleased to MEET-cha — the burriness is more important than what the bird is singing

Yellow-Throated Warbler - Look-Look-Look-Come-Look-at-ME — you can hear them singing on territory near the picnic area at Leesylvania State Park

Cerulean Warbler - Four quick buzzy notes, leading to a buzzy trill at the end - like a Black-throated Blue's song that speeds up at the end

Orange-crowned Warbler - A staccato trill that falls at the end

Golden-winged Warbler - bee-buzz-buzz-buzz — some Blue-winged Warblers put one or more extra buzzes on the end, and the hybrid warblers of the two species also might sing a song with more than one buzz