Bird Song

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RobinBird song is a wonderful and uplifting sound. OK, too much Green Woodpecker, Great Tit or even Cuckoo can drive you bonkers, but…

It’s world of different sounds that the majority of people don’t tune in to. I’ve been on walks where I’ve commented “What a lovely song, but what sort of bird is it?” The response tends to be “What song?” Now though, being confined within a restricted sphere, many of us have the opportunity to listen in without the usual background noise of traffic. The good weather helps too. I warn you though, once you do tune in you’ll stay tuned in!
First, it’s useful to think about the purpose of birdsong. It is all about breeding. Most song is used either to defend a territory or attract a mate, and is a male pastime, and between now and late summer is when it all happens – there is no dawn chorus in winter.

Before you start delving into sound clips and try to work out who’s song you’ve been listening to, it’s helpful to work out whether it’s a song or a call; often you need to listen to the right part of the clip to identify the bird concerned. Whilst song is all about breeding, calls are used for all sorts of purposes such as contact within groups, alarms, or calling to offspring. Definitions vary, but songs tend to be complex and melodious, (I stress tend to be….) whilst calls tend to be simpler; both are often repeated. Perhaps the most frequently heard example is the Blackbird. Their fluid and varied song is heard all day long, with early morning and late evening being the best times to fix it in your mind as they tend to be the first and last songsters. Disturb one during the day though, and you will hear a completely different sound – their alarm call is a series of staccato squawks, rather indignant sounding, as they fly away or warn you off. Another call, much heard at the moment, is the sort of clucking they use to round up their fledglings when they have left the nest but are still dependant.

StarlingsSocial species such as Sparrows, Rooks and Goldfinches are among the birds you can hear chattering away to each other – these are contact calls. Some, such Starlings are often rather soothing, almost a sort of coo, whilst sparrow communications in particular rise and fall depending on whether they are just chatting, or getting aggressive!

Finally, if you hear a song, is there a response? Territories usually abut each other, so if one male is proclaiming his ownership, the one(s) next-door is usually having his say too!
There are many websites specialising in bird song; is one of the easiest to use. (Bizarrely, many of the songs are recorded outside the UK!) To try it out, click on the link and then on the Blackbird. Look above the picture on the page which the link opens, and you’ll see three tabs: for song, alarm call and flight call. Listen in and you’ll hear the difference.

Next question – when you hear a bird singing, how do you go about working out what it is??

A repetitive single note could be a Great Tit (supposedly teacher, teacher). A complex song which rises at the end could be a Chaffinch. A varied high-pitched song could be a Robin (no two phrases are the same) – a Wren maybe if it is even higher pitched.
On the assumption that you’ll be in your garden when you first tune in, the 10 most reported gardens birds in the GBW survey are

Blue tit
Great tit
House Sparrow
Collared Dove

Start there and see how you get on.

For more information on Garden Birds the British Trust for Ornithology is your best source
Mike Gray