Hearing Birdsong

Spring is here and the birds are singing.  It’s time to get our ears in tune to identify birds by song.

Did you know that even with excellent hearing there are some bird sounds we cannot hear?

Our ears are tuned to the sounds important to humans — our own voices, babies crying, the noises of danger — but our sense of hearing doesn’t pick up everything.

Animals are the same way.  Some birds make noises higher in scale than we can hear but it’s well within their own hearing range.  Golden-crowned kinglets and Blackburnian warblers are famous for singing high-pitched songs that sound fainter as they rise in pitch.  Some people can’t hear the high notes at all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, whales sing below our range though sometimes we can feel their sounds as vibrations when they’re loud enough.

So what is our normal hearing range?  It’s different from person to person and the range narrows as we age.  Young people hear the widest spectrum.  Older adults lose hearing at the top of their range.

You can experiment with what you’re able to hear at this University of Kentucky Engineering webpage.  Read the instructions, then scroll down for a selection of recordings of different tones.  Each recording repeats the tone at a particular Hz level.  The recordings start loudly and become softer as they continue.

I discovered that my hearing range is 100 Hz up to 9000 Hz but at the far ends of the spectrum (100 and 9,000) I can only hear the tone when it’s very loud.  It disappears as it gets softer.

That may explain why I think golden-crowned kinglets sound fainter as they rise in pitch.  I’ll bet they’re singing with the same loudness the whole time but as they rise in pitch they approach the upper end of my hearing range.

The strangest part of the hearing test was when I clicked on the 60Hz and 10,000Hz recordings and heard nothing!   Those sounds are out there but I’ll never know.(*)

Try it yourself.

(photo of a Marsh Wren singing, by Chuck Tague)

(*) p.s. See the comments for information on the quality of sound from computer speakers vs. headphones.

UPDATE Nov 28, 2012: I tried this test again with better computer speakers and discovered I can hear 12,000 Hz, but it is so high that apart from the hearing test I would mistake it for ringing in my ears and not a noise produced in the wild.

UPDATE Dec 11, 2019: I tried the test again. I no longer hear anything at or above 8,000 Hz. 🙁

8 thoughts on “Hearing Birdsong

  1. Some of what you hear will depend on what you are listening with, won’t it? My desktop speakers can barely reproduce 60hz, and I doubt they reproduce real high stuff all that well, so I won’t hear those tones either. I need to dig out some good headphones….

  2. Very good point, David. I’d forgotten about that! Though I work for a TV & radio station I’m not an audio engineer so I don’t think about speaker capacity.

  3. Very interesting Kate! I have been told all my life I have very sensitive hearing so I had to try this out myself. While Listening on a computer with really bad speakers my low range was the same as your at 100Hz but I actually could hear the first couple seconds of the 15,000Hz. When I plugged in my good earphones I could hear all the tones down to the 40Hz. Having better earphones / speakers definitely made a difference especially for the lower tones.

  4. I’ve been meaning to ask you this for awhile and this post reminded me.

    I live in Sq. Hill. For the last few weeks around dusk and dawn, my husband and I have been hearing a bird that goes “hoo hoo hoo”. We’d love to know what kind of bird makes this call, but hours of searching Google and bird calls on Youtube haven’t yielded any good answers. I even tried looking up types of birds that live around Pittsburgh so that I could look up their calls on Youtube, but I’ve been having trouble finding even this information. I’m completely stuck and don’t know where else to ask except this blog.

    Any thoughts on what this “hoo hoo hoo”ing bird might be would be greatly appreciated. My husband suspects that it’s an owl, but I didn’t think owls lived around here.

  5. Being a musician (among other things) I’ve learned that my hearing is so important. I went right to the lowest and could hear the first 4 or 5 tones and then the next 2 were more of a “feel” …. same with the highest … I could feel the low in the chest and those high tones really made my sinuses itch … seriously …. (and kinda funny as well)

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