The highs and lows of bird song

The highs and lows of bird song

In my first blog for the Ealing Wildlife Group, it is perhaps appropriate for me to talk about bird song.

We are now well into Spring (although on some days you wonder if we really are), summer migrants are returning and adult birds have become more territorial and some already breeding. There is much more bird song to be heard – their way of attracting a mate and defining their territories.

For most of us, going about our daily lives, bird song is just part of the background, “white noise” of which we are hardly aware. Our hearing system is constructed intentionally this way, otherwise, we would be driven mad by the continuous intrusion of extraneous sound which would hinder our ability to think of other things or concentrate on important oral stimuli. Only a sudden loud noise, like a scream, siren or a sound we recognise as significant will be allowed to penetrate this protective defence system. If we were continually trying to determine which bird was singing in the background, we would not be able to think of anything else. That’s why learning birds’ songs has to be an active and conscious process of listening, interpreting and memorising.

Most of us have difficulties recognising and memorising bird songs. And while these are much easier to learn in early spring before all the migrants have returned, it becomes virtually impossible for the uninitiated to tease out and recognise individual species once the whole symphony of sound erupts in late spring. Of course, here in Ealing, which is a mostly urban environment, the numbers and variety of birds will be limited. 

Early in spring, before the trees and bushes become fully draped in foliage is not only an ideal time for observing animals and birds but also an excellent opportunity for listening and learning the various songs of the few birds around. By May, once the summer migrants have all arrived and have added their voices, the soundscape becomes a confusing cacophony. It is so much easier to pick out the few early voices and connect them visually with the songsters.

Later, when the leaf cover makes visual identification much more difficult and a myriad of songs and calls melds into one background orchestral work, identifying individual species becomes a much harder task. It is easy just to give up and resign oneself to simply enjoying the chorus without trying to identify the separate choristers.

What also makes learning bird songs difficult is that they rarely, if ever, have just one repertoire of notes, but use various, so-called sub-songs, which can be particularly confusing, and then they have a whole variety of calls when they wish to signal alarm or danger or to maintain contact with family or flock.

Some songs are easy to identify and memorise, like the Chiffchaff and Cuckoo. Their names are also onomatopoeic representations of their songs, even though “Chiffchaff” is only an approximation of the sound the bird actually makes, just as the Cuckoo doesn’t actually sing “Cuckoo”. In German, for instance, the Chiffchaff is called “Zilp-zalp” and the Cuckoo, “Kuckuck” also a transliteral approximation of the same songs.

One of the reasons we find bird songs difficult to learn and memorise is that we have a very poor vocabulary to describe sounds, almost as poor as that available to us to describe smells. We find it easier to say it sounds or smells “like” something else.

With bird song, we can use words like loud, soft, whistling, melodious, melancholic, joyful or raucous but none of these words actually comes close to describing the song or call itself. That is why using an onomatopoeic crutch can be very useful, but few bird songs lend themselves to such an easy method. The Yellowhammer comes close with its “Little bit of bread and nooooo cheese” song, but even this verbal transliteration still involves a jump of imagination to hear those words in the actual notes the bird emits. Or the Great Tit which can sound very much like an old bicycle pump.

Then there are birds that mimic other birds just to make matters even more complicated. The Marsh Warbler, for instance, which imitates a whole number of birds both European and African, picked up in its winter haunts. Although here in Ealing we are hardly likely to encounter this very rare warbler.

Even though I know most of the common birds’ songs, each year I always have to “hear myself in” when spring arrives: “Ah! Of course, that’s the Common Redstart” or “is that the Common or Lesser Whitethroat?”  But in no time I have them fixed in my memory again – at least until next year.

One of the best ways to memorise a specific bird song, though, is to find a way of visualising it or comparing it with others that you know, or inventing a verbal description for it. I always think of the Robin’s song as a rather slow, melancholic tinkling melody, the Willow Warbler’s as a rather weak, sad, little descending melodic scale. A Chaffinch sounds to me like an authoritarian teacher, with a final: “That’s it, get on with it”. 

This work of identifying songs is particularly difficult with birds that sound very similar and often difficult to see to confirm identity. The Blackcap, for instance, has a sweet quite strident melody, for such a small bird; its cousin, the Garden Warbler, sounds much the same but its song is delivered at a slightly more rapid pace, as if it can’t fit all the notes into the allotted time, and it is sustained for a longer period. 

Some of you will have already been on one of the organised dawn chorus outings with someone who knows their bird songs and can help you identify ones you don’t yet know. 

Today, sadly, the density of bird life and the variety of bird song have been very much diminished since I began watching birds in my youth. Many common birds I knew then, like Chaffinches, Linnets, Yellowhammers and Turtle Doves are now rare or completely absent from our lanes, woods and hedges.

This morning, I was very pleased to be greeted by a Song Thrush singing from the crown of a tall, ivy-clad ash tree, at the bottom of my garden. The clear, fluting two-syllable and variable but the repetitive song is unmistakable and uplifting as if it is throwing down a fiery challenge to the departing winter. That is also a bird that was to be found everywhere when I was young, but it has become almost a rarity today.

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  1. Lucinda

    Really enjoyed this blog but unfortunately some of the images overlapped the text when reading on a mobile so I missed some important bits..!
    A tool I have found invaluable when teaching myself bird songs is the Merlin Bird ID app – highly recommend!

    1. Emma Chard-Cumming

      Dear Lucinda, thank you for letting us know. We are aware of the issue which appears to only be happening on iPhones and are seeking ways to fix it; the blog is perfectly readable via a browser on a computer or laptop. EWG Web Team