Tips on how to identify and learn bird calls

(Presented as a talk during the Club's evening meeting on 7 March 2009)

Bird calls are very complicated and sometimes difficult to imitate or describe on paper.  Birds can produce different sounds simultaneously (the two bronchial sides going into the voice box or syrinx can each produce a (different!) sound at the same time).

  1. Start with birds in your garden or a familiar patch or target habitat
  2. Identify 5 to 10 birds in this area and learn their calls
  3. Jot down calls that confuse you and compare the confusing calls
  4. List 5 to 10 birds you hope to see in your garden / familiar patch / target habitat and learn their calls
  5. Watch what the bird does when it calls – some birds imitate other birds, e.g., Myna, Sabota Lark and White-throated Robin-chat
  6. Note habitat and distribution (use different books, e.g., Roberts, Sasol and Newman)
  7. Try to picture the bird in black-and-white (or grey) – note the GISS
  8. Some birds don’t call in Africa, e.g., European Cuckoo and Corn Crake
  9. Most raptors are excluded although the alarm calls of other birds such as the Grey Go-away Bird can be used to locate a raptor in the air
  10. Listen to different recordings of birdcalls, e.g., Roberts, Gillard and Gibbon.  Birds have different ‘dialects’ in different areas
  11. Create an association between the call and another sound or word phrase that will make it easier for you to remember the call, e.g., the Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike – “coffee-tea-or-me” and the Long-billed Crombec – "los-my stertjie";
  12. Also keep in mind that one bird may have more than one commonly used call, e.g., Southern Boubou.

Etiquette regarding bird calls and sound:

  • Tape/PDA/MP3: Others may regard the use of sound as a disturbance (noise pollution!) and find it annoying!  Use bird calls with great discretion and inform the outing leader and other birders around you of your intent to play a call.
  • Cell phones: Turn your cell phone off or put it on silent.  If you have to take a call, move away quietly and slowly to where you cannot be heard before starting a conversation.
  • Talking: Talk in a quiet and low tone.  Don’t whisper – it creates a ‘spishing’ background noise similar to a bird’s alarm call.
  • Walking: Slow movements and careful treading will allow you to hear more and even see better.  Test yourself: remain quietly in one place for a minute and count how many birds you hear (and identify!).  Try listening to birds calling in the background as well.
  • Share information: If you discover a special bird, share this information (quietly!) with birders around you.

Calls have not been omitted from the following list because they’re not important – feel free to add birds or create your own ‘wishlist’!  Remember: birds have wings and can occur in different habitats.


Calls that might be easier to remember:

  • Doves: Cape Turtle, Red-eyed and Laughing
  • Speckled Pigeon
  • Helmeted Guineafowl
  • Karoo Thrush
  • Cape Robin-chat
  • Lapwings: Crowned and Blacksmith (vs. African Wattled, not as common in the Gauteng area)
  • Grey Go-away Bird
  • Burchell’s Coucal
  • Red-faced Mousebird
  • Kingfishers: Brown-hooded and Woodland
  • African Grey Hornbill
  • Barbets: Crested and Black-collared
  • Bulbuls: Dark-capped (vs African Red-eyed – uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Willow Warbler
  • Cape White-eye
  • Chinspot Batis
  • Black-backed Puffback
  • Common Myna (imitating!)
  • Sunbirds: White-bellied and Amethyst
  • African Hoopoe
  • Hadeda Ibis
  • Southern Masked Weaver
  • Cape Wagtail

Calls that might be more difficult to remember:

  • European Bee-eater
  • Sparrows: House, Cape and Southern Grey-headed
  • Little Swift
  • Swallows: Greater and Lesser Striped
  • Speckled Mousebird
  • African Paradise Flycatcher
  • Fork-tailed Drongo
  • Green Woodhoopoe (compare with Arrow-marked Babbler)
  • Southern Boubou (compare with Black-headed Oriole)
  • Honeyguides: Greater and Lesser
  • Pigeons: African Green- and African Olive-
  • Pied Crow
  • Groundscraper Thrush
  • Weavers: Thick-billed and Village
  • Southern Red Bishop
  • Canaries: Yellow-fronted and Black-throated; Streaky-headed Seedeater
  • Bronze Mannikin
  • Cape Glossy Starling
  • Common Fiscal

Bushveld and Acacia woodland

Calls that might be easier to remember:

  • Spurfowls: Swainson’s and Natal
  • Crested Francolin
  • White-browed Scrub Robin
  • Rattling Cisticola
  • Crimson-breasted Shrike
  • Cuckoos: Red-chested, Diederik and Klaas’s (the latter is uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Korhaans: Northern Black vs Red-crested (the latter is uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Emerald-spotted Wood Dove
  • Magpie Shrike
  • Brubru
  • Bush-Shrikes: Orange-breasted and Grey-headed
  • White-crested Helmet-Shrike (uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Golden-tailed Woodpecker
  • Acacia Pied Barbet
  • Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
  • Kurrichane Thrush
  • Brown-crowned Tchagra
  • Fiery-necked Nightjar
  • Red-throated Wryneck
  • Coqui Francolin
  • Ashy Tit (uncommon in the Gauteng area)

Calls that might be more difficult to remember:

  • Owls: Pearl-spotted Owlet and Southern White-faced Owl
  • Quails: Common vs Harlequin (the latter is uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Kurrichane Buttonquail (uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Cuckoos: Jacobin, Levaillant’s, Black, African and Great Spotted
  • Nightjars: Rufous-cheeked and Square-tailed (uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Hornbills: Red-billed and Southern Yellow-billed
  • Southern Pied Babbler (compare with Arrow-marked Babbler)
  • Warblers: Marsh, Great Reed, Icterine, Olive-tree, Garden
  • Burnt-necked Eremomela
  • Barred Wren-Warbler
  • Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler
  • White-throated Robin-chat (imitates!)
  • Kalahari Scrub Robin
  • Grey Tit-Flycatcher
  • Long-billed Crombec
  • Bar-throated Apalis (compare with Black-chested and Tawny-flanked Prinias)
  • Neddicky
  • Starlings: Violet-backed and Burchell’s (the latter is uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • White-browed Sparrow-Weaver
  • Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver
  • Firefinches: Jameson’s and Red-billed
  • Waxbills: Blue and Common
  • Green-winged Pytilia
  • Red-billed Oxpecker (uncommon in the Gauteng area)
  • Fairy Flycatcher (winter)

Rocky outcrops and hills

  • Red-winged Starling
  • Black-crowned Tchagra
  • Freckled Nightjar
  • Cinnamon-breasted Bunting
  • Cape Rock-Thrush
  • Mocking Cliff Chat
  • Striped Pipit
  • Lazy Cisticola

Night or dusk/dawn

  • Spotted Thick-knee (vs Water Thick-knee – uncommon in Gauteng area)
  • Owls: Barn, Spotted Eagle-, Marsh and Southern White-faced
  • Fiery-necked Nightjar


Calls that might be easier to remember:

  • African Fish Eagle
  • Egyptian Goose
  • White-faced Duck
  • Cape Longclaw
  • Three-banded Plover
  • Levaillant’s Cisticola (compare with Cape Grassbird)
  • Warblers: Lesser Swamp and Little Rush
  • African Rail
  • Hamerkop
  • Red-chested Flufftail
  • Double-banded Sandgrouse

Calls that might be more difficult to remember:

  • Grey-backed Camaroptera
  • Common Greenshank
  • African Snipe
  • African Stonechat
  • White-winged Widowbird
  • African Firefinch
  • White-fronted Bee-eater
  • Kingfishers: Pied and Giant
  • Warblers: African Reed and Sedge
  • Dark-capped Yellow Warbler (uncommon in the Gauteng area)


Calls that might be easier to remember:

  • Larks: Rufous-naped and Monotonous
  • Zitting Cisticola
  • Bokmakierie
  • Eastern Long-billed Lark (uncommon in the Gauteng area)

Calls that might be more difficult to remember:

  • Larks: Flappet and Eastern Clapper
  • Red-capped Lark
  • Pin-tailed Whydah
  • Wailing Cisticola
  • African Quail-finch
  • Cisticolas: Desert; Wing-snapping and Cloud (compare)

Broad-leaved or mixed woodland

  • Southern Black Tit
  • Brown-backed Honeybird (compare with Black Cuckooshrike)
  • Striped Kingfisher (compare with Woodland Kingfisher)
  • Eremomelas: Yellow-bellied and Green-capped
  • Meyer’s Parrot
  • African Scops Owl
  • Tinkling Cisticola


  1. Various people who taught us bird calls over the years, e.g., Stephan Terblanche, Etienne Marais, André Marx, Rob Geddes, Greg Lock, Dave Sole and Leon Kay
  2. Laniarius articles:
      • June 2004 pp. 23-24. Etienne Marais: Good Birding and Birders’ Etiquette
      • December 2004 pp. 18-20. Déwald Swanepoel in oorleg met Stephan Terblanche en André Marx: 101 Voëlgeluide vir ‘n beter voëlkykervaring 
      • Winter/Spring 2008 pp. 12-13. Dr Daantjie Viljoen: A mnemonic guide to recognition of some birdcalls – mainly for beginners and those with some imagination
  Calls 1
  Calls 2
  Calls 3