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How to Identify Bird Songs and Calls

Updated on May 16, 2012

Sheer Bliss

Walking in the woods is one of the most relaxing things you can do. However, bird watching in this environment can be very frustrating. Which is why learning their songs and calls is so important.
Walking in the woods is one of the most relaxing things you can do. However, bird watching in this environment can be very frustrating. Which is why learning their songs and calls is so important. | Source

Introduction

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

The Basics

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.’

Useful Tips

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

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

Blackbird

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.

The Blackbird

Song Thrush

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

Blackcap

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.

The Blackcap

Buzzard

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.

The Call of the Buzzard

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    • angie ashbourne profile image

      angie ashbourne 4 years ago

      Hi! Beautiful Hub. Angie

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi angie, thanks for dropping by. Glad you liked it.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This piece was very well done, and you took the time to provide calls and songs. Spectacular!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a lovely hub. I'll be visiting it several times to listen to all the bird songs again! The birds have begun singing where I live too. It's a wonderful time of year.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you for your kind words aviannovice, really appreciate it.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Alicia, they really are wonderful songs, especially the blackcap. The birds have been singing for some time round by me. I try to get up earlier at this time of year, so that I can listen to the dawn chorus. Thanks for dropping by.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      That definitely gets me in the mood for summer and getting out and about. The perfect hub to have for this lovely weather.

      Thanks John.

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Nice hub! I love to hear and see the birds singing. Last year, I went for the first time of my life to a tour to observe birds in the Caribbean; it was really interesting.

      I have a couple of cardinals in my backyard...they are here all year long. It is really their territory! I love to observe them!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem, christopher. I can't believe how the weather has changed recently. Four days ago, I was enjoying lovely spring sunshine, this morning I woke up to snow. That's Britain for you.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi kidscrafts, that trip to the Caribbean must have been awesome, I'd love to spend some time observing tropical birds. Thanks for dropping by, really appreciate it.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      What a great hub JKenny ;I love anything to do with nature and this one is a treat.

      Take care and I wish you a wonderful day.

      Eddy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Eddy, we are both of a similar mind. I really appreciate you dropping. Take care of yourself.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is a subject I want to know more about so thank you for the primer on it. I have a lot of research to do as we prepare to move to the country where I will have no shortage of bird calls to listen to.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks billy. Where about's are you moving to? I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun listening and learning about all of those different songs. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      James,

      Thanks for publishing this fascinating article. I appreciate the amount of research that went into your Hub and the fact that you provided the bird songs and buzzard call along with your text.

      I enjoy reading Hubs in which I can learn something new...in this case, the differences between bird calls and songs.

      I live in Southern Calfornia, half-way between Los Angeles and San Diego, in an area with a lot of open space. One of the most common calls I hear is that of the mourning dove.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Daisy, many people are unaware that birds have such a wide communicative ability. The birds featured were all species that are common where I live in England, so I'm really glad to have shared these charming birds with you. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      I love bird watching. The videos are amazing.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Vinaya. I appreciate the fact you took the time to drop by.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Good to see a hub on this jkenny, I've been trying to nail a few more bird songs into my head - I've always been really bad at it, but am quite pleased to have mastered the chiff chaff and great tit this year.

    • orchidloverdianne profile image

      orchidloverdianne 4 years ago from Manila, Quezon City

      Was dropping your profile and this hub made me stopped by. I love birds since i was raised in the mountain and their songs really made me calm. Great hub JKenny! You are a great writer... God Bless!

      Dianne

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Nettlemere, pleased to hear you've got the hang of the chiffchaff and great tit. Just keep getting out there and listening. In time, you'll be able to tell a meadow pipit from a skylark. Thanks for dropping by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Dianne, must have been awesome to have spent your childhood in the mountains. Thanks for the kind words and the follow. Take care.

    • Isabel Melville profile image

      Isabel Melville 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a wonderful hub! Those bird song recordings are superb and a delight to listen to!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Isabel.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      Thank you so much. That is a superb hub! I'm a pretty keen amateur ornithologist myself and can only agree with you that learning bird song is really a necessity if you want to get an idea of what is taking place in summer woodland - a woodland in full leaf is a place in which your binoculars will not avail you of much assistance! My I share some of my top tips with your readers?

      1. Go out fore-armed with some knowledge of what you are likely to hear in the place you are going.

      2. Bearing in mind that a blackbird (to choose just one example) will typically sing 6,400 different variations of his song in one day without repeating himself, remember that you are looking for the key distinctive traits of a species' song, not trying to learn it note for note. It's more like trying to recognise say, Schubert or Mozart, through his style and main themes than recalling all the scores he ever penned! So you can hear a piece that you've never heard before but say, "Aha, that must be by Schubert!" (or greenfinch/robin/etc)

      3. Learn your birds' habits and habitats to help you narrow it down. If you think a song might belong to a certain bird but you are not sure, consider which of the species it might be is most likely to be found in that particular habitat.

      4. Be patient, it takes time. The most important thing is to get out there and make a start. Birds of the thrush family are great to start with as they often sing in highly visible spots so you can get a verification. Feed the birds in your garden so they will come to you and learn their voices the easy way!

      I hope that's a useful contribution to an excellent hub. All the best and enjoy the birdsong.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much for popping by, whowas, and thank you for the great tips. I'm sure anyone interested in birdwatching will find them very useful. I can no longer remember if I followed those tips in the beginning, it just seems so natural now. Guess I must have done when I was a kid.

    • harmony155 profile image

      harmony155 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Fascinating! I enjoyed this hub.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks harmony, very glad you liked it, appreciate the visit :)

    • profile image

      summerberrie 4 years ago

      Hi, JKenny. Great hub filled with useful information and helpful tips. Nice new avatar, too!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks summerberrie, glad you liked it. Hehehe...thanks for that, thought it was time for a change :)

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      James, this was a great hub about song and calls from birds. Very informative. Your song thrush video has no image, though. Voted up for useful!

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