Top Songbirds in America

Discover why you should be listening for these top-notch types of songbirds.

And the winner is… the wood thrush. Or the hermit thrush. Or maybe it’s the veery or the house finch. With hundreds of songbird repertoires to choose from, picking the singer who reigns supreme all depends on who’s listening.

But whichever bird strikes a special chord in your own heart, this list of soulful songsters will definitely give you a few new favorites to discover. Take a listen to some of the best.

Top Songbirds In AmericaBill Leman
Bill Leman American robin

Thrushes. Imagine yourself in a spring wood in the dim light at the end of the day, listening to the poignant song of a wood thrush. Pretty soon, you too may be inspired to write a love letter to this singer, as Thoreau did in his 1852 journal, extolling the wood thrush’s evocation of “the liquid coolness of things drawn from the bottom of springs.” The simple ee-oh-lay followed by a trill is haunting, no doubt, but it’s the twilit surroundings that make it pure magic.

Another thrush with a delightful song is the veery. This bird’s simple song, a whirling, reedy repetition of its own name, is also delivered at dawn and dusk in the dim forest, going straight to the romantic heart of the listener.

The song of the hermit thrush isn’t nearly as sweet and heart-tugging, but its rapid, liquid melody resonates with our ears because it follows some of our own musical scales, a trait that researchers only confirmed last November after carefully analyzing recordings.

Finally, a bird so common we tend to never give it a second glance: the American robin. Take a few minutes to listen, and you’ll see it shares the musical talents of its thrush family.

Wrens. An unstoppable waterfall of notes spills from the throat of the tiny, indefatigable house wren, one of our most beloved backyard birds. Put up a birdhouse with a 1-1/8-inch entrance, and you have a good chance of welcoming a whole family. The house wren is the virtuoso, but all wrens have voices that will perk your ears up.

Orioles. Loud, clear, whistled songs are the hallmark of these vividly colored birds. Oranges, jelly and suet will bring them to your yard, but for a bit of extra temptation, put out a handful of string (6- to 10-inches long) for them to use during nest-building.

Sparrows and finches. Every one of our native sparrows (more than two dozen species) has a song, and many are sweet and melodic. Listen for the common, brown-streaked song sparrow, which begins singing in late winter. House finches are among the earliest singers, beginning their complicated warbling not long after the turn of the year. Seeds are what all of these dozens of species prefer, so stock up on white proso millet for sparrows, sunflower seeds for finches and nyjer for a treat.

Mimic thrushes. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds and thrashers have charming songs, but they can imitate other sounds, too. You’ll hear them singing at dawn, dusk and off and on throughout the day. They’ll sometimes sing at night, too. The mockingbird in particular may take it to extremes, holding forth for hours from the rooftop right over your bed.

Grosbeaks. Less common than other songsters, the rose-breasted, black-headed and blue grosbeaks are all melodic warblers within their nesting ranges or along their spring migration routes. Once a rarity at feeders, they’re becoming more and more frequent visitors. They’ll eagerly eat sunflower seeds, as well as small, soft fruits from bushes or trees.

The most familiar grosbeak is one we don’t usually think of, although its heavy bill says otherwise. It’s the northern cardinal, one of our most abundant and beautiful backyard singers.

Top Songbirds In AmericaBill Leman
Bill Leman Summer tanager

Tanagers. Seeing—or hearing—a tanager is usually a red-letter day because these birds aren’t nearly as abundant as other songbirds. Still, keep your ears open for their long, robinlike songs, especially during spring migration, when they may stop off in any backyard. Some tanager songs have a hoarse quality, suggesting “a robin with a sore throat.”

European starling.What’s the scorned starling doing among the sweet-voiced beauties? Well, it’s an incredible singer, too. Best of all, starlings begin singing in winter, just when it feels like spring will never come.

Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard

Insects and fruit are the natural menu for most of our finest songsters, including thrushes, orioles, tanagers, mimic thrushes and many grosbeaks. The more trees, shrubs and other plants in your yard, the more of these birds you’re likely to hear as they forage for insects and other natural food.

Many songbirds are only recently discovering feeders, so stock yours with a variety of offerings: Suet, mealworms, oranges, apples, peeled bananas and grapes are a great start. Don’t hesitate to experiment, either. When I dumped small chunks of dried papaya in the feeder, a gray catbird and a Baltimore oriole took turns snatching them up. Orioles and a few others are famed for having a sweet tooth and will eat jams and jellies or visit a nectar feeder with perches. Finches, buntings, native sparrows and grosbeaks prefer seeds at the feeder. Another must is a birdbath. They’re a big attraction for all songbirds.

Sally Roth
Sally Roth gardens in desertlike conditions in the High Rockies but she can't resist plants with colorful foliage, like coleus.