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Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of North America

August 7, 2020

Your Bird Book Shelf

I understand that there are still people in the world who haven’t completely ruined their ability to hear. I’m not one of them. A lifetime of working next to 100-ton punch presses, 200-ton trip hammers, unmuffled gasoline and diesel engines; idling jet planes on open tarmacs; flying in small planes and Russian helicopters without ear protection; countless hours listening to loud rock ‘n’ roll, including ear-piercing, bone-rattling live Pink Floyd concerts; and the topper, too much rapid-descent & -ascent free diving on coral reefs, left me with permanent, continual tinnitus and dozens of decibels of mid-to-high-range hearing loss in both ears. Hearing aids help, but what’s gone will never come back. That’s life.

For you fortunate and wiser others, there’s books like these which go a long way towards helping you learn (and remember!) bird song.

Image from

From, the blog of author Nathan Pieplow:

The Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds, in two volumes (east and west), is the most comprehensive guide ever published to the sounds of North American birds. Each volume contains:

  • The sounds of over 500 species
  • Over 3600 spectrograms
  • Over 7500 streaming audio files on the accompanying website,
  • A groundbreaking visual index that makes it possible to look up unfamiliar sounds in the field

In Birding, April 2020, the magazine of the American Birding Association (ABA), is the following brief overview of the Western volume.

As with his Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America, author Nathan Pieplow presents an impressively comprehensive overview of the sounds of over 500 western North American birds. The first 33 pages explain how to use the guide, how birds produce sound, how spectrograms represent sound, and why avian sounds are so varied. Pieplow expertly explains what to listen for when identifying sounds, and he describes variation in song form and timing with descriptions that are informative and fun to read. The bulk of the book is species accounts, with each account including images illustrating anywhere from four to ten distinct sounds made by each species, some of which birders often miss or don’t know. The depth of detail in each species account is striking, but most impressive is the breadth of coverage that this guide provides: It is no small feat to document the complete vocal repertoires of 537 species.     — Lauryn Benedict —

A longer and more detailed review by Benedict, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado  can be found here on the ABA website.

I took a look at the accompanying website, It led to a Bird Academy page on The Cornell Lab website, which gave me several options.

One option was the tab How to Visualize Sounds which led me to this page on the website:

How to Visualize Sounds

These pages are an interactive version of the introduction to the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds. Here you will learn how to visualize sounds and how to describe them in words.

Another option was to Explore the Companion Sound Library. Enter a bird name and up comes a page of sonograms. Poke a tab and hear what you’re looking at. You can do this on your smartyphone.

Finally, here’s a detailed review from the website

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America: A book review by a sound challenged birder. | Donna Lynn Schulman | June 6, 2017

I’ll give you two paragraphs. I hope you read the entire review:

The Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America by Nathan Pieplow is innovative, fascinating, and challenging.  As the title plainly says, this is a guide to the sounds birds create—their songs, calls, chatters, chitters, barks, drills, raps, claps, pops; some made with syrinx (a bird’s vocal organ), some with bills, wings, feathers, feet, or air sacs (it seems that there is not a body part that some bird doesn’t use to make sound). The guide covers 520 species of birds regularly found in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, including, interestingly, a number of exotic species. Rather than the bird photos or drawings we expect in a field guide, the species accounts are focused on spectrograms, visual representations of sound frequencies, illustrating each species’ unique sounds in black-and-white squiggles and lines (though there are drawings of birds as well). Here is the challenging part: how do we utilize this guide to identify birds in the field? As a birder who struggles to hear and identify bird sound, this is the question continually on my mind as I write about this book.

Later in Schulman’s review:

The last section of the book, the Index to Bird Sounds, also called the Visual Index, is the most creative part of the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America, and, I think, the section that requires the most work, especially for sound-challenged birders like me. The Index lists all sounds displayed in the Species Accounts, grouping similar sounds together. There are seven major parts, and each of these parts is subdivided by sound characteristic, tone quality, and pitch quality. The page below, for example, is A Complex Song of Mostly Musical Series or Trills, part of Index Part VII: A Complex Song. It includes sounds made by American Goldfinch, Bachman’s Sparrow, Hooded Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbird. The page number of the species account for each bird is listed next to the name. The symbol on the right indicates roughly how the sounds in each group appears on the spectrogram. It sounds confusing, and, like many new things, it is confusing until you start using it.

Even hearing-challenged Donna found this book helpful. Perhaps there is yet hope for me.  [Chuck Almdale]

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