How to Identify Bird Songs and Calls
Most of us enjoy a nice relaxing walk through the woods on a pleasant spring or summer day, it’s undoubtedly one of the best ways to cleanse your soul of the burdens that often overtake us in our modern lives. You can’t help but smile as you gaze up into the green boughs and watch sunlight filter gently down towards the forest floor. All of a sudden, something catches your eye, a flicker of movement in the canopy, not a squirrel definitely a bird, but before you can get a good look, the bird has gone.
This is something that all too often happens when trying to bird watch in woodlands of any kind. Which is why being able to identify the different songs and calls of different species is very useful skill to have. It’s a skill that can give you a valuable insight into the daily lives of our feathered friends, they can help you gauge how well a certain species is doing, they can help reveal an otherwise elusive predator and even help you to track the seasons without having to rely on a calendar.
However, for the novice matching the song/call with a species can be a pretty bewildering task, especially when you are in woodland in spring and summer, when you seem to be literally engulfed with a cacophony of avian noise. If you find it hard to concentrate, simply take a deep breath, shut your eyes and just enjoy it. As with most things in life, the more times you experience something, the better you’ll get.
The Songs of Various British and European Birds
The Alarm Call of the Blackbird
Birds basically make two kinds of noises; calls and songs. The calls are mostly used for direct and quick communication, while songs, the ones we’re more familiar with often consist of a rather complex repertoire of notes. However, certain calls of the some of the smaller species of songbird can be almost identical to each other, which can often lead to frustration even for the most experienced bird watchers.
The most common call you’ll hear is the alarm call, they’re easy to identify through their loudness and harshness. Among the most familiar is the vibrant chattering of blackbirds, ‘pink, pink,’ and the ‘tic, tic’ of the wren. Alarm calls are always good to listen out for, as they often reveal the presence of a predator. In the woods for example, a wave of harsh alarm calls may lead you towards an encounter with a roosting tawny owl or a sparrowhawk.
Songs, on the other hand are only usually heard in the spring and summer, and are all about attracting a mate and staking out a territory. For birds though, the start of spring is heralded by the winter solstice and the promise of longer and lighter days. Gradually, over the following weeks their breeding instincts begin to kick in, by January you’ll notice that the Robin- the only British bird to sing throughout the year is already joined in the growing avian orchestra by the tits and the dunnock- formerly known as the hedge sparrow. As the days grow longer and warmer, more and more species join in. One good thing to do is to pick a favourite species, for instance the Robin and simply listen out for their song and make a note of where each individual is singing, that way you get an idea of territorial boundaries and you also get to hear fascinating song battles between two neighbours.
Bird songs vary greatly both in terms of volume and construction. They range from the very simple and often barely audible to the rich, evocative and pleasant. You also have those that deliver strident bursts and those that repeat the same notes over and over again. Of all British birds, the great tit has the biggest repertoire of calls and songs; in the birding world, there is a saying ‘If you don’t know the call, then it’s probably a great tit.’
The RSPB's Website
- The RSPB: Birds and wildlife
Contains a comprehensive guide to British Birds and their songs/calls.
Learning to identify bird songs can be a challenging prospect. But in a way, it’s no different from learning the lyrics of a certain song. Most of us have a collection of favourite songs, and whenever they’re on the radio you recognise them instantly. The same philosophy works in the bird world. For beginners, I recommend recording bird songs onto your mobile phone or a Dictaphone and comparing them with recordings available on the Internet.
There are also so CD’s available that have recordings of the songs of every British bird species, as well as their calls, and let’s not forget that you can also download bird songs onto an MP3 player. Don’t do too much at once, pick ten of your favourite species at first, or ten that live in your area, record their songs and maybe listen to them while travelling to work, to give yourself a chance to familiarise yourself with your ‘neighbours’. Eventually you won’t even have to spend your time craning your neck upwards; you’ll hear a familiar song and instantly know that a robin is in the area. Now, I’m going to profile several birds that either have easy songs to remember or are very common.
Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler
These birds are warblers and arrive in Britain in late March to breed, before leaving in September. These birds are very closely related. So close, in fact that they are visually identical to us. However, in terms of song they are very different; the chiffchaff basically sings its own name, while the willow warbler produces a series of pretty, liquid notes that starts softly and ends with a flourish.
The Song of the Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler
Robin’s are unusual among songbirds, as they have both a breeding territory and a feeding territory which they defend vigorously throughout the winter. This explains why they are the only British songbird that sings all year. Their song is often quite varied but always melodious, whenever alarmed they make a high pitched ‘tic, tic’ call.
The Song of the Robin
The blackbird is one of our most common and instantly recognisble birds, even to those who have no great interest in them. Their song is rather beautiful and mellow, consisting of a slow, clear warble that gradually tails off at the end. Whenever they get alarmed, they make a loud ‘tchook-tchook’ call and at dusk, will often be heard making a ‘pink, pink’ call.
This is another famous British bird and easily recognisble, particularly from its brown upper parts and spotted breast. It does have a larger cousin, the mistle thrush, but as well as being larger, they are also much paler in colour. Song thrushes have a huge repertoire, but their song is usually musical, comprising of a series of short phrases repeated between three to five times.
The Song Thrush
This bird doesn’t enjoy the same amount of fame as the robin or blackbird, but it is responsible for one of the sweetest songs you’ll hear in a British summer. The bird gets its name from the ‘black cap’ possessed by the male; the female’s cap is brown. The song is sweet and melodic, with obvious phrases, variations in tempo and generally ending with a flourish. Of all the song birds, this is my favourite, purely in terms of song, for me the blackcap is the ultimate sign that spring has arrived, and warmer weather is on its way.
Okay, this isn’t a song bird by any stretch of the imagination; you won’t hear a fluent, melodious musical number from this creature. But it does make one of the sweetest calls you’ll ever hear, it’s mewing call ‘peee-uu’ and can be heard throughout the year is truly wonderful. Whenever I hear it, I cannot help but crane my neck upwards and am usually rewarded with the sight of this majestic bird soaring effortlessly hundreds of feet in the air, so high that it’s a mere speck. Buzzards mostly soar on warm, sunny, cloudless days where they can take advantage of heat thermals rising from the ground. Watching buzzards soar, listening to their sweet call on a nice sunny day is one of the best bird-watching experiences you can ever have.