Last May I stayed a night in Rye in East Sussex, arriving late and after dark. Eager to get going the next morning, I woke at first light and took in the new surroundings of my quaint, beamed room, with its little latticed window which I had opened the night before. After a short while, the gentle purring of a turtle-dove drifted in through the window, a delicious sound I always associate with lazy, hazy summer days. This was quickly followed by the short explosive call of a moorhen, while in the distance a skylark had started to sing.
Over the next 20 minutes, as I lay in bed listening, my songs and calls total reached an amazing 31 different species, including the bullfinch’s “rusty hinge in need of some oil” song, the “peewit” call of the lapwing and the scratchy, excited notes of a sedge warbler.
During this time I had begun to visualise the view from my bedroom window. I knew there must be water close by as I had heard a moorhen. Both turtle-dove and bullfinch love scrubby, overgrown thickets and I suspected that there were reeds growing by the water’s edge that had attracted the sedge warbler. But the skylark and lapwing calls, which I had also heard, did not fit this habitat at all, as they both like an “open” landscape, completely different from the entangled, shrubby areas that the others frequent. These songs had sounded more remote, so I envisaged there must be farmland with large fields in the distance. I rose from my bed to find this very countryside outside my window – a slow-flowing back-water with reeds and an overgrown thicket to my left while, to my right, a wide open expanse of grass headed away towards the horizon.
I relay this little story of an extremely pleasant start to a day in Sussex to emphasise just how much can be gleaned from learning different bird songs. Of course, the sheer beauty of listening to a song thrush delivering its full repertoire can be appreciated by anyone with the time and inclination to stop what he is doing and listen, even if he doesn’t know what the bird is. But it does add something to the total experience when you know it is a song thrush and not a blackbird, without double-checking it through your binoculars. It is also of considerable help to be able to identify the bird from its song before all the trees and hedgerows are fully clad with leaves, a factor that makes your optics less than helpful.
Springtime, especially the months of May and June, resonates with birdsong, when our resident songsters will have been joined by summer visitors to bolster the dawn chorus. Birds like to sing at first light, as the air is still and cool, transmitting sound up to 20 times more effectively than at midday, reminding other males in the area that this territory is occupied, so keep out. It is only the males that sing, not just to defend their territories but also to attract females – a male may have been killed in the night, freeing up a potential mate.
For migrant species, the darkness may have also brought new arrivals into the vicinity. Females will often choose the male with the best voice or repertoire, which is why some clever chaps will add “new” noises to their song. I well remember a blackbird that had learnt to perfection the sound of the old trim phones and spent the day repeating the noise from the top of a village tree, much to the annoyance of locals who kept rushing to answer the call.
Birds also have dialects, so that although the song sounds the same to us, computer technology shows that there are subtle differences that can place the origin of the bird, similar to our own local accents.
This is all fascinating stuff, but surely it is the actual beauty and enormous variation of sound that birds make that is so magical. The bubbling call of the curlew out on the marsh or the trilling of oystercatchers on the rocky shoreline might be a favourite. Or possibly the robin outside the bedroom window as you awake or the “go back, go back, go back” call of the red grouse that transports you straight to the heather-clad hills wins your vote. Imagine if the whole year were like a cold, bleak midwinter’s day – silent except for the wind – wouldn’t it be awful? But when did you last stop and really listen to the chorus that surrounds us in springtime? Why is it that often we do not appreciate something until we have lost it? When a lady called Mary Sorrell found that she was “forced” to slow down, following a serious stroke which had deprived her of speech, she wrote this haunting poem:
In a grey sky on a grey day,/A brown lark sang her roundelay./With trembling voice and quiv’ring wing,/She hovered low to softly sing./No sweeter song I ever heard than from the throat of that small bird./She trilled and trilled, then flew away,/Into the sky and sunless day.
How then, with all these superb spring sounds out there, do you set about learning to identify an individual species of bird from its song? If you think about it, you probably already know a few, such as the fat wood-pigeon cooing away while sitting on your roof or the chirping house sparrow on the gutter. So, add to these by choosing just a handful more of the common birds that live around your home. This way you can test yourself every time you go outside.
The most frequent mistake people make is to buy a CD of birdsong and play the whole thing from start to finish a few times and then declare the task impossible. Of course it is. By selecting just a few species at a time you will find that before too long you are able to reel their names off with ease, so that you can then begin to add one or two more to your list.
There are, of course, as with all things in life, some difficult species that sound virtually the same and you need plenty of practice before you can pinpoint which is which. Take the reasonably common blackcap and its relative, the rather rarer garden warbler. They sound similar but the garden warbler tends to be quite “fluty” and sings for long periods of up to 15 seconds at a time whereas the blackcap delivers its song in much shorter bursts and hits high, squeaky notes. If you are lucky enough to come across both singing together, you realise that, actually, they sound quite different. But, more often than not, you will find yourself scanning the bushes to see whether the songster has a black cap on its head or not.
There are other problematic species that can really be separated only by their song be-cause they look so similar. Both marsh and willow tits look almost identical “in the field” but their songs are completely different, so if you get to the level of carrying out bird surveys, it is important to be able to distinguish between the two by song alone. Apart from songs, birds also make a wide range of other noises and, in the case of the marsh tit, it often calls “pichay”, which sounds just like a sneeze. If you live in a wet marsh (actually they live in woodland), you would probably land up with a cold, too – which is exactly how I first remembered that this sneeze sound was made by a marsh tit.
So which then is the best songster of them all? Well, for many, it is the beautiful song of the nightingale that triumphs over all others. Although the bird itself is not the most striking you will ever see, with its brown back, pale underside and rusty-coloured rump, it surely makes up for this dowdiness by its stunning song. Nightingales overwinter in western Africa, returning to our shores in April when the males will immediately set up a territory and start to sing. Coppiced woodland and scrubby areas with lots of dense undergrowth are their favoured habitats.
To stand in a thicket as night falls, listening to a nightingale’s song, is to hear one of the most wonderful sounds of the English countryside. The repertoire consists of up to 200 different song types, often given in slightly different, repeated phrases and usually ending in a crescendo. The song is also really loud, carry-ing long distances on a still night, telling potential females arriving from Africa that a male is holding a territory and telling other males to stay away. The best time to hear them sing is from mid-May onwards but once the male has secured a mate his singing ceases, usually in the second week of June.
Many people have written poetry and music about the nightingale over the years but perhaps the cleverest of all occurred in 1924. Beatrice Harrison, the acclaimed cellist, had moved the year before to a house near Oxted in Surrey where she used to practise on her instrument in the garden. She was amazed that whenever she played, a nightingale would join in. She spent some time over the next year convincing the then director general of the BBC, Lord Reith, to allow a team to come to her Surrey garden the following May to record the two of them “playing” together. On 19 May, 1924, the first ever live outside radio broadcast came from her garden at 10.45 in the evening. It was estimated that around a million people tuned in and that about 50,000 letters were sent in about the recording. Quite some achievement for a little brown bird!
For more watch this video
* Buy a basic CD of birdsong, such as Garden Bird Songs and Calls by Geoff Sample and use it to build up your recognition skills gradually.
* Try the very useful Collins Field Guide: Bird Songs and Calls of Britain & Northern Europe (book & CD).
* Get yourself a copy of Birdsong by Jonathan Elphick, Lars Svensson and Jan Pedersen, a book with a sound module that carries the voices of 150 species.
* Already advanced? Further your knowledge using the DVD-ROM Guide to British Birds Version 9. To buy a copy, visit
* Try Natural England’s free CD of birdsong – The Best Farmland Bird Album in the World Ever, Vol 1 available at www.naturalengland.org.uk.
Useful websites for finding out more about birdsong
* Listen to clips of songs/calls on the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name.
* Go on a walk with an expert. Peter Thompson (the writer) is Biodiversity Advisor at the GWCT.
He arranges walks with local wildlife organisations. Visit www.gwct.org.uk/courses to book.
* Take part in a regional event, arranged by your local Wildlife Trust. For further information,
* Once you get really hooked, why not join a local bird club? Visit www.birdsofbritain.co.uk/bird-clubs/index.asp to find out more.
* Celebrate nature’s daily miracle by getting involved with International Dawn Chorus Day on 6 May. Visit www.idcd.info for further information.