Hey, kids.  Grown-ups seem to think that some birds sing these phrases:

“Drink your tea-ee-ee!” 

“Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”

“Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle” 

“Potato chip!  Potato chip!”

“Teacher, teacher, TEAcher!”

What’s that all about?  Birds sing about tea and potato chips???  And who’s Old Sam Peabody, anyway?  Does he know a teacher?

These phrases are called mnemonics (you say it this way:  nuh-MA-nix.  That crazy ‘m’ at the beginning of the word is silent). The birds aren’t really singing about tea and potato chips, of course. These phrases are just ways to help humans remember what bird they’re hearing when they hear bird songs.

Listen at the links below to find out if you agree with the phrases that grown-ups use. These are all birds you can hear in Pennsylvania, so if you learn their songs—using mnemonic phrases, if those help you­—then you might hear these birds when you’re outside!  If you don’t like the grown-ups’ favorite phrases, you can make up your own phrases that seem to you to match each bird’s song. You’ll notice at the links below that each bird can sing different versions of its own song, too, so knowing the mnemonic phrases is just the beginning of learning each bird’s special music.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhees like to scratch around looking for food on the ground in forests. Grown-ups say that they often sound like they’re ordering you to “Drink your tea-ee-ee!” Listen to their song at All About Birds by clicking the button below, (especially the first green button labeled “Song)”, and see if you agree.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows, like Eastern Towhees, search for food mostly on the ground. They also like to visit bird feeders in the winter. Some grown-ups say their high whistle sounds like “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” (Click on the button and listen to the first green arrow labeled “Song” since that has an especially good recording.) Other grown-ups think instead that the White-throated Sparrow whistle sounds like “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” Which do you think is a better phrase? Do you think some other words would be better for you to remember that song?

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wrens live in trees, both in forests and near houses. They are quite small but VERY LOUD. Grown-ups think they often sound like they’re calling out, “Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle,” though they do have several other songs. Click on the first song to listen to the tea kettle song (especially the first green arrow labeled “Song (Northern)”). Does it make you want to drink tea?

American Goldfinch

The American Goldfinch male is super handsome in the spring. American Goldfinches travel in flocks, landing in trees. They have complicated, fancy songs, but somewhere in their song is almost always a phrase that some people think sounds like “Potato chip! Potato chip!” Since these birds have a lot of yellow, we could think of them as flying potato chips. They even dip down and then back up when they fly, as if they were potato chips scooping up dip! Other humans think that set of musical notes sounds more like “per chick-ory!” Click on the 6th green arrow button (the one labeled New York, July 26, 2020 recorded by Jay McGowan/Macaulay Library) to hear and get used to the special phrase. Then you can click on some of the other recordings to listen for the special phrase within or at the end of the longer songs. Can you hear it?


Last we’ll hear the Ovenbird. Ovenbirds got their name because their nests look sort of like an old-fashioned covered oven. You can see a picture of their nest here.

The mnemonic for their most common song is “Teacher, teacher, TEAcher!”

Click on the button below, and then on the big photo of the ovenbird to watch and hear it singing. Notice how its song gets louder and louder? Even though this is a small bird, in the woods it can be very loud! Do you think it’s really asking for its teacher?

Christine M. Du Bois, Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town and editor of Bird Beat

Image credits:

Eastern Towhee (14019905671), by CheepShot, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Zonotrichia_albicollis CT1 (White-throated Sparrow), by Cephas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Carolina_wren_(03389), by Rhododendrites, licensed under CC By-SA 4.0

Carduelis-tristis-002 (American Goldfinch), by Mdf, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Ovenbird_(49992807378), by Andrew Weitzel, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0