Birds Say the Darndest Things

10 Words (or Phrases) Birds Seem to Be Saying
15 May 2024

With the spring migration of hundreds of bird species underway throughout North America, you may hear an unfamiliar call, song, or other bird-related noise in the coming months, whether you live in the city or country. One of the mnemonics birders use to identify birds by sound is to “translate” their various tweets, honks, and warbles into recognizable English words and phrases (sometimes called “memory phrases,” as in this handy list from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park). With thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library for the audio and visuals, here are ten such words and phrases commonly attributed to our feathered friends. And if you give a hoot, you might also enjoy this article on words (like hoot, screech, and caw) for different bird sounds.

Ovenbird definition: an American warbler that builds a dome-shaped nest on the ground

Teacher definition: one whose occupation is to instruct

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Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They're easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.
— Bryan Stevens, The Erwin (Tennessee) Record, 30 Apr. 2023

American goldfinch definition: a small finch native to North America that in the breeding plumage of the male is yellow with a white rump and black markings on the wings, tail, and crown

Potato chip definition: a thin slice of white potato that has been cooked until crisp and then usually salted

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In spring and summer, listen for their bright and cheery song, a musical series of rising and falling notes. Year round their short calls can be heard, often in flight and at times sounding like “potato-chip, potato-chip.” Arriving in late April, American goldfinches can continue to be seen into late November before they move downhill.
— Joe LaFleur, The Pikes Peak Courier View (Woodland Park, Colorado), 6 Nov. 2023

Eastern towhee definition: a long-tailed passerine bird of eastern North America with the male having reddish sides, white underparts, and black upperparts, head, and neck

Tea definition: an aromatic beverage prepared from tea leaves by soaking them in boiling water

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The Eastern towhee is a beauty to behold. … Shy and reclusive, this sparrow-sized beauty can be a tough bird to view, let alone photograph. Look for them in brushy, scrubby areas where dense vegetation provides nesting security. If you listen closely, you'll hear their bright, cheery melody singing, “drink-your-tea.”
— Dorothy L. Harris, The Highland News-Sun (Sebring, Florida), 24 Oct. 2021

Chuck-will’s-widow definition: a nightjar of the southeastern U.S.

Widow definition: a woman who has lost her spouse or partner by death and usually has not remarried

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Every early spring, I looked forward to the first night singing of the Chuck-Will’s-Widow. When I hear it for the first time, I make my ritual move from the winter bedroom to the sleeping porch. What a joy it is to be out of that claustrophobic bedroom and back on the spring-cleaned porch, the fragrance of wild azaleas, moonlight in the pines and all through the woods the merry night song: chuck will’s widow, chuck will’s widow, chuck will’s widow.
— Bailey White, All Things Considered (NPR), 23 Jun. 2011

Turkey definition: a large North American gallinaceous bird that is domesticated in most parts of the world

Gobble definition: to swallow or eat greedily

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You may be interested to know that both male and female turkeys gobble. When I was a girl, riding bikes with the neighborhood kids, we would pedal past a turkey farm and shout “gobble gobble!” Hundreds of turkeys would gobble back.
— Amy O’Leary, The Messenger-Index (Emmett, Idaho), 21 Nov. 2023

Flicker definition: a large barred and spotted North American woodpecker with a brown back that commonly forages on the ground for ants

Flicker definition (2): to appear or pass briefly or quickly

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In order to avoid being found guilty by association, flickers opted not to use woodpecker in their name. It's a shrewd move on their part. Actually, the name flicker was given to them because of their diagnostic “flicker, flicker, flicker” call. The northern flicker comes in two different flavors, or subspecies as the scientists prefer to say. Here in the east, we have the yellow-shafted flicker, a bird with bright yellow under the tail and wings.
— Mike O’Connor, The Bourne (Massachusetts) Courier, 6 Nov. 2013

Yellow warbler definition: a small North American warbler very common throughout the U.S. and frequently breeding in shade trees in cities and villages and having the male bright yellow with brown streaks on the underparts

Sweet definition: marked by gentle good humor or kindliness

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From the higher elevations of the mountains, I came down to a marshy area in the valley where I was greeted by “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.” The yellow warbler is a common inhabitant of shrubs, hedgegrows and thicket edges.
— Chris Petrak, The Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer, 2 Jun. 2006

Carolina wren definition: a large wren chiefly of eastern North America having a loud lively song

Cheeseburger definition: a hamburger topped with a slice of cheese

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One of my favorites not only stays and sings its “cheeseburger-cheeseburger” call year-round, but is being seen and heard more and more in the suburbs. I am reminded of that phenomenon daily, a few minutes after sunrise, when my feathered alarm clock sounds loudly and repeatedly under the bedroom window. Guess who? That’s right: the Carolina wren, easily recognized by its clarion call and distinctive plumage—from its upturned tail to its caramel-colored breast to its gently curved bill.

American robin definition: a large North American thrush with olivaceous to slate-gray upperparts, blackish head and tail, black and whitish streaked throat, and dull reddish breast and underparts

Cheerio definition: chiefly British —usually used as a farewell and sometimes as a greeting or toast

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While there are a few potential competitors, one of the most widespread and characteristic early-morning singers is the American robin. Their winter flocks are now breaking up into territorial pairs and male robins are climbing to high perches in trees to carol their first-light music, a classic, lilting, up-and-down song sometimes rendered as “Cheer up! Cheerily! Cheerio!”
— Jack Gedney, The Marin (California) Independent Journal, 8 Apr. 2024

White-eyed vireo definition: a vireo of the eastern U.S. with a greenish olive back, white underparts, and a yellow ring around the white eye

Rain check definition: an assurance of a deferred extension of an offer

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Another trick is to translate bird calls in human-speak using mnemonic devices. The Eastern Towhee calls sounds like “Drink your tea.” The White-eyed Vireo’s call almost comes off as a sentence: “Quick, give me a rain check.” — Bob Hill, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), 22 May 2016