Bird song (1)

At about the time that this blog post is published I will probably be making the first cup of tea of the day – at 6am. That would be normal in my house.

Today it will still be dark, but if I take a step outside the back door, as I often do, then there is likely to be birdsong. A Robin or two, and, of late, a bunch of Song Thrushes and an occasional Blackbird.

I couldn’t tell you the exact date by the sound of the dawn chorus in my garden, but I reckon I’d be pretty close.

Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing. I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.

For me, being in a place where the sounds of birds are unfamilar is disorientating, exciting and frustrating. Mostly frustrating, because it is difficult to learn these songs and calls quickly – there is a lot of variation and it’s difficult to get them straight.

The fact that I can stand outside my kitchen while the kettle boils, or in most places in the UK, and in many places in Western Europe and know that I am at home, ornithologically, is a boon. It is comforting.

And although my knowledge of birdsongs isn’t the greatest, it has been built over a lifetime. There are decades of listening and accumulating recognition of songs that is now ingrained and unbidden. But you could do it too. And the time to start is now.

February is the time to start learning bird songs because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. Start now. Start today.

Take a few moments before breakfast to have a listen. Go for a walk and a listen at lunchtime. ‘See’ what you can hear. Do you hear the same thing tomorrow and the next day? How do you work out what was singing? Well, the first thing is to try and see the songster – that’ll help a lot. But otherwise ask a birder. Or if you don’t know anyone with the knowledge then pick a few common species and listen them up on xenocanto – a brilliant resource for the expert and a useful one for the novice.

I can’t tell you what you can hear outside your house but it’s quite likely to include Robin, Song Thrush and Blackbird, like outside mine, early in the mornings at this time of year. There are also Great Tits (tricky little critters) and Starlings, with Dunnocks (although I haven’t heard one for a while), Collared Doves and Wood Pigeons.

Have a listen. This is the time to start. In March there will be more song and it’ll be more difficult to start if you haven’t got a few nailed down by then. And in April some spring migrants may be adding their voices and that’ll make it all the more fun but also all the more frustrating. If you haven’t learned a few by then you will feel like I do in a foreign land…

Let’s do this together this spring. What can you hear?

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19 Replies to “Bird song (1)”

      1. Two evenings ago as I walked my patch in East Yorkshire I heard song thrush and robins. During the day great tits are chiming a lot. This morning it was robins, blackbirds and wood pigeons. Interestingly, the blackbirds haven't really started sing much in the dusk yet, they're still arguing and presumably establishing territories. The first song thrush if the year I heard was in Helmsley, North Yorks, on New Year's Day, a tad early to say the least.

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    1. Well having switched from inland Northants to 1/2 mile away from the sea in Seaton Carew my bird calls in the morning has rapidly change, regular as clockwork bang on 7:30am it's gulls mostly Herring & Common but also at the moment Curlew calling and often seen, Redshank are so common even walking off the estate you can see 6-8 Redshank on the roundabout which always makes me laugh. Turnstones temporarily confused me though, the Widgeon, Teal and Lapwing on the North Gare (Seaton Common) on the otherside of the road from the house too...just the Parakeets that have an ugly call but they vanish in the winter according to locals so haven't heard them for a while

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  1. Wood pigeons (they haven't stopped all winter even in the snow), mistle thrush, chaffinch, great tit and robin all singing in Highland Perthshire despite the temperature being just above freezing. Dozens of hungry birds still at the feeders.

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  2. ‘Most country people know the very common birds by name and by eye; it is remarkable that only that very few know them by ear.’
    ‘The dunnock this year I did not hear till February… I found it a difficult song at first to distinguish till I became familiar with the “timbre”… just as one may recognise the presence of a friend in company by the tone of the voice, without hearing or attending to what is being said.’
    [The Charm of Birds by Grey of Fallodon, (1927) with nine more editions up to 1937].
    Buy the book. It’s inexpensive and in most second hand bookshops. And then, month by month, let this classic work of ornithological writing delight you with, and guide you through, the avian soundscape.

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  3. I stood yesterday on my early morning dog walk and listened to a particularly good Song Thrush and eventually found him in the top branches of an Alder along our ditch.
    I like Mark have built up a life time of listening although my hearing is not what it was and pipits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers ( and grasshoppers) are now mostly beyond my range and I have to be very close to a Grasshopper Warbler.
    Birdsong, indeed the sounds of nature may be familiar, comforting even at times sublimely uplifting that is hard to understand those who have no interest in hearing it.

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      1. Exactly. The first time I walked outside with my new hearing aids I was delighted to hear all the birdsong. I hadn't realised all that I had been missing. Huge thanks to the NHS - they add more quality to life.

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      2. Murray each time I have had my hearing tested I have been told that it is perfectly normal for my age ( now 69). It's just that those very high pitched sounds are now beyond hearing. I thought about a Canadian device called "Song Finder" but it is rather pricey. In my late forties I could still here bats and not just Noctules perhaps its the product of too many loud concerts or the white noise of all those years radio tracking small passerines or mice. My partner sometimes accuses me of selective deafness but it often falls on deaf ears!

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  4. My dawn chorus is 40 or 50 angry sparrows protesting that I'm late with their breakfast. Once they've got their beaks full enough to quiet down I'm lucky enough to be able to hear all kinds of birds from my garden on a good day. Yaffling green woodpeckers, cronking ravens, song thrushes and robins, and it won't be too long now before I start listening for the first cuckoo. Maybe I'm getting a bit eager for Spring...

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  5. That's the upside of the early-morning waddle through the garden mud to feed the chickens... Robin and Dunnock been singing for a week or two now, and apparently, him indoors reckons there's a Goldcrest singing out front, but as they are above my hearing range I wouldn't know.......

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  6. For early starters Ducks in the dark on the pond waiting to scoff the frogs/spawn. Must get the net out.- Jay and Magpie flew past the window after thier morning snack and scold as I settle down to type. Cock crow and drum (Pheasant) with his broody hens. Its all go.

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  7. Two evenings ago as I walked my patch in East Yorkshire I heard song thrush and robins. During the day great tits are chiming a lot. This morning it was robins, blackbirds and wood pigeons. Interestingly, the blackbirds haven't really started sing much in the dusk yet, they're still arguing and presumably establishing territories. The first song thrush if the year I heard was in Helmsley, North Yorks, on New Year's Day, a tad early to say the least.

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  8. A lovely blog Mark, I'm surprised you haven't been approached by the Guardian Country Diary! My second morning stop after your own blog to set the day off on a cheerful note.

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    1. And it’s also good and important for drawing attention to a subject that's a bit in the shade these days - (ornithologically speaking).

      A Greenfinch wheezed out its musically challenged song this morning - not heard that song for a long time. A useless observation on its own but not so if lots of others start to notice such changes too.

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  9. Really enjoyed your blog this morning 🙂 I love learning birdsong. Five years ago, I began putting apples out in my garden overwinter. I now have a pair of blackcaps in my front and back gardens. They taunt me with sub-song each March and I keep hoping they will nest in my garden if I treat them well. But they always leave. I love their song. Equally as much as I love singing blackbirds. Their favourite apples are the russet variety. My garden has 15 chatty house sparrows, a winter gang of various tits, and dunnocks started singing this week. I love listening to owls at night, too. And have been treated to a pair of deep cawing ravens which fly over my garden daily. Much to the annoyance of jackdaws and herring gulls! Still have so many songs and calls to learn!

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    1. I understand that the winter Blackcaps that we see migrate here for winter from Central Europe and normally return there to breed. Our summer birds rarely stay on to overwinter apparently.

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