It always makes me smile when people talk about ‘the peace and quiet’ of the countryside – as it can be really noisy! Farm animals, especially sheep, are actually quite loud if you live close to them and then, of course, there’s the inescapable tractor and other clanking bits of farm machinery. But most deafening of all can be the dawn chorus! Of course, when I say deafening, I mean that in the most wonderful way, a magical wall of sound that, in spring and summer is the most glorious thing to wake up to, even if it is rather early!
While I really appreciate the background beauty of bird song, I am not all that good at identifying different birds, or what the different tweets and chirrups of our songbirds actually mean. But being able to recognise a species by its melody means you will see more when you are out walking, so I was interested to find some tips on how to become a better bird song expert!
Birds are the first to warn when there is a predator about. If I hear a noise out of place (blackbirds have a particularly strident alarm call), I stand stock still and wait to see what happens. Sure enough after a little while a cat, stoat or other mammal will usually emerge.
Although bird’s songs sound cheerful, they are actually expressions of aggression used to warn off competitors or noisy serenades to attract a mate. Generally, the prettier the tune, the more confrontational the bird that is singing it!
Here are some tips I found online to help recognise bird song:
1. Start with signature tunes
Among the UK’s native species there are definite ‘songsters’. These are birds with beautiful voices, like blackbirds, robins, skylarks, song thrushes and chaffinches, and each has its own, distinct signature tune. Once you’ve learned a bird’s song, you can always pick out, even if it only sings a few phrases of the melody.
2. Build on what you already know
You may not think you know anything about bird song, but most of us already have a basic knowledge – think of the hoot of a tawny owl or a cuckoo’s call. It’s not difficult to add to this the ‘Repeat, repeat’, repeat’ of a song thrush or the noisy chittering of a wren. For such a tiny bird, a wren’s song is very loud!
3. Fit the sound to your surroundings
If you are by a river or a stream and you hear a loud, piping call then look out for the electric-blue of a kingfisher as it flashes past. Grey wagtails make a sort of ‘chiswick’ call that is so loud you can hear it above the sound of running water. On the other hand, if you are walking across moorland, or a ploughed field, and you hear the most joyful stream of song – look up! It’s most likely a skylark and probably one of my favourite songsters.
4. There’s a clue in the name…
Cuckoos, curlews, kittiwakes and chiffchaffs are named after the calls they make. Listen out for the ‘chiff’ ‘chaff’ next time you are walking through scrubland or woodland. Walking on the moorland down here in Devon, I often hear the stone chat who, unsurprisingly, says ‘chat’!
5. Add some lyrics!
It is said that some bird songs sound like nursery rhymes. A yellow hammer sings: “A little bit of butter and nooo cheeese”. And then there’s the wood pigeon’s eternal and, quite irritating, refrain of: ‘My toe hurts Betty; my toe hurts Betty; my toe hurts Betty. Oooh’. Once you’ve got lyrics in your head it’s easier to remember the tune.
Fascinatingly, birds actually have local dialects. A British chaffinch, for instance, sings a slightly different tune to a Siberian one. But the difference is something only a really committed ornithologist with experience of listening to a range of species across Europe needs to know… so I think we’ll need to pass on that one!