Unless you are lucky enough to have a knowledgeable friend with the patience to teach you, learning to identify birds’ songs and calls can be a difficult business. There are records and cassettes available, and these are certainly a help, but there is no substitute for learning from nature.
It is well worth the trouble. Most experienced ornithologists use their ears just as much as their eyes and, once learned, the different birds’ voices are found to be quite distinctive after all.
Early in a new year is an excellent time to start. At present, very few species are in song, and those that are can be identified with ease. As the year advances, other species begin to sing and can be learned one by one, well before the arrival of the summer visitors. Once the voices of the resident, native birds are known, it becomes much easier to learn the songs and calls of the summer birds which make a May hedgerow such a confusing place for the would-be ornithologist.
If you have a garden or just live within earshot of singing birds, or if you regularly walk the same route to school or work, the problem is simplified still more.
Take a sheet of foolscap or A4 paper and divide it into 15 or so columns and as many rows as you conveniently can (squared paper is ideal for this). Each row represents a day; in each of the columns, write the name of a bird as you identify it or as it comes into song.
Keep your chart and a pencil in a handy place, and each evening make a mark in the columns of those species that you have heard singing during the day. This exercise, if carried through, will have the effect of making you listen and differentiate every single day, so that learning becomes as effortless as possible. You will also end up with a scientific record of the way that the number of species singing gradually increases as the summer approaches.
The first candidate for a column is likely to be the starling, which sings virtually throughout the whole year. Its song is often delivered from a chimneypot or bare twig at roof height, and consists of an unmusical collection of wheezes, rattles, and whistles, incorporating a number of sound-effects and impressions of other birds. The starlings near our house do a very passable curlew, quite a good coot, and a fair lapwing impersonation. According to one newspaper report, an amateur football match once had to be called off because of a starling which insisted on copying the sound of the referee’s whistle.
Another bird in song throughout December and January is the dunnock, or hedge sparrow, a modest, inoffensive little creature, brown above and grey below, which moves about the edges of the lawn with shuffling movements of its wings. The song is a pleasant warbling, rather subdued, of no great duration or power, slightly discordant, repeated at short and irregular intervals. It is usually given from a shrub or low bush; the main call-note, worth learning because the bird spends so much time hidden, is a piercing tseep.
The starling and the dunnock sing almost continuously during January, whatever the temperature. On milder days they will be joined by the robin, song thrush, and perhaps wood pigeon.
In winter, both male and female robins maintain an independent feeding territory, and both sexes sing. This winter song is often described as thinner and more wistful than the males’ spring song: it is made up of short warbling phrases, slightly shrill. Sometimes, if the weather is specially mild, a robin can be heard in January and February at night. The alarm call is a distinctive tic, tic; other calls are a plaintive tsee, tsit, and variants.
The song thrush is one of the virtuosi of the garden. Its song is clear and musical, consisting of a succession of short phrases. Each phrase may be repeated several times, and it is this repetition that is so typical of the song thrush. Some thrushes are more accomplished singers than others, and day after day can be heard going through and refining a repertoire that can include half a dozen favourite phrases. The alarm call is a sudden tchik-tchik-tchik. A note often given in flight is sipp, and the distress call is a penetrating seee.
The most beautiful song of all comes from the blackbird, which does not start to sing regularly until the end of February. The blackbird’s voice is richer and more mellow than that of the thrush. The song is more sustained; there is no straight repetition, but an endless improvisation and exploration of a number of themes. It has been found that individual blackbirds vary a great deal in their talent. The song of young birds is rather uninspired, but an older and more experienced male can give a truly musical performance. Such a bird will sing even though there is no need to guard the territory, and on such occasions it is hard not to believe that one is listening to a real aesthetic sensibility at work.
The blackbird’s alarm call is a characteristic loud chatter. A note of milder alarm is chook; and at dusk, just before going to roost, the neighbourhood blackbirds engage in a communal chorus of chik-chik-chik-chikking.
The only songbird which might be confused with the song thrush or blackbird is their larger relative, the mistle thrush, which is less common and is generally found in wilder countryside. It begins to sing regularly from the second week of February. The song is loud, relatively unmusical, with an aggressive quality, consisting of a series of short phrases delivered from the topmost branches of a tree. The alarm note is a harsh churring rattle.
Other birds to listen out for, in order, are the collared dove; the wren, whose song is astonishingly loud for the size of the bird; the chaffinch, greenfinch, blue tit, great tit, and, if you have large old conifers nearby, coal tit and goldcrest.
By the time March comes round and with it the first chiffchaff, you should be in a good position to learn the voices of the summer birds. The greatest challenge to your skill will be the dawn chorus in mixed woodland, but, until then, good listening!