Bird song (8) – Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff. Photo: Tim Melling

When I was a lad, birding just south of Bristol, my aim was to hear a Chiffchaff in March rather than let that event slip into April. In fact, my aim was to hear a Chiffchaff before my birthday on 29 March. I usually did it, but not always – that’s why it was a worthwhile and challenging goal. These years, my aim is to hear a Chiffchaff before the end of the Cheltenham racing festival, about two weeks earlier (sometimes three weeks earlier) and I usually manage it, but not always. Chiffchaffs now arrive back in the UK a good two weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s – so do many other Spring migrants and there is a story to be told about that some time.

But whenever I hear that first Chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that Spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for Spring, what could be better than the song of the Chiffchaff? This one was singing in Belgium yesterday;

…and this one was in the Netherlands the day before;

…and here is one from Somerset in May 2017;

They all sound the same and it’s as easy to see (hear!) why the Chiffchaff is called a Chiffchaff as it is to understand why a Cuckoo is called a Cuckoo.

There will probably be a Chiffchaff singing in a wood or patch of scrub near you today, and if not today then tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon. Spring is coming and the Chiffchaffs seem to bring it.

And what a gloriously simple and unmistakable song to start the Spring arrivals! It’s a clear and simple song to bring a clear and simple message – Spring is coming!

But there is a slight twist to this tale. The Chiffchaff song is, you would think, unmistakable but just very occasionally it can be mistaken, or in fact another song can be mistaken for it. The first time this happened to me I was shocked but it has happened now and again over the decades so I always listen hard and try to see my first Chiffchaff of the year.

Back in February I was in a car with a friend who started telling me, proudly, that they had identified a bird singing in their garden, back in January, from its unmistakable song, a Chiffchaff. I was driving and apparently the expression on my face, probably a knowing smile, gave away my scepticism. January is not an impossible date to hear a singing Chiffchaff (although I never have, nor in February) but it would be very unusual. Some Chiffchaffs winter in the UK, mostly in southern England and often in wetlands – I see them sometimes, and hear them call, not sing, in the Nene valley – but the first Chiffchaff song is usually in mid March these days. So, was this an early Chiffchaff (really quite early and in a rather unusual location for it to be a Chiffchaff in January) or was it something else? I can’t be sure, but my money would be on it being a Great Tit.

Some Great Tits, with their tee-cher tee-cher song, have a song type, that is an excellent version of the Chiffchaff. You may recall that individual male Great Tits may have several slightly different versions of the tee-cher tee-cher song, and a few can do a great Chiffchaff. So, it is possible to hear a Great Tit with a completely characteristic Great Tit song suddenly transform itself into a Chiffchaff. I think that’s what happened with my friend – but one can never be completely sure – maybe it was a Chiffchaff.

And while we are on Great Tits, as others have said in comments here, if you hear a strange noise in a woodland then a good rule of thumb is that ‘It’s probably a Great Tit’ because it so often is. A couple of weeks ago I heard a strange buzzing noise in my garden and I certainly didn’t know what it was, and I had never heard it there before. It was almost like a Crested Tit’s purring call but it was never going to be a Crested Tit, and so my experience told me ‘It’s probably a Great Tit’ but I wanted to see the bird to be sure, and it wasn’t difficult to find the Great Tit in next door’s garden making the odd call. It’s a call I’ve never heard before, but the rule of thumb worked out well this time as it so often does.

Great Tits seem to have taken over this post which is supposed to be about Chiffchaffs! But in a way that is fair, the Great Tits have been singing since December, you can hear a Great Tit song in any month I guess, and the general form of their song, two notes, and its rhythm, is quite Chiffchaff-like. Great Tits may feel that they are the true harbingers of Spring – but they aren’t. Great Tits start singing so early that they can’t be reliable Spring bringers – they are like the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’, eventually they are bound to be right but we’ve stopped heeding the call by the time Spring arrives. No, the arrival of singing Chiffchaffs, after a thousand-mile journey and a roughly 5-month general absence from our shores, is the true indicator of Spring. Chiffchaffs are the true spring-bringers.

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14 Replies to “Bird song (8) – Chiffchaff”

  1. Ah wonderful. The Chiffchaff I saw yesterday was not singing when I later went out with the dog, perhaps it had moved on or doesn't like border collies. Such a simple song and yet hugely uplifting, its so jaunty and happy. Like you as a teenage birder it was a must to hear one in March and just thinking of it takes me back to the mature hawthorn scrub overlooking the Low Bridge at Knaresborough, ( where they were always early and may still be) a cold sunny day and that simple song.

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  2. Great Tit for Chiffchaff – great song warning – never knew that. Thanks Mark.

    The phenology of the first song harbingers of spring is of course now very important. But so is perhaps the less easily observed subject of when do certain birds stop singing in a particular region. For example, here Chichaffs over the last 15 years have nearly always ceased singing by week 30, whereas for Great Tits it’s week 24.
    That kind of negative result, along with those of other common species, seem like a boring set of records compared to all the joys of positive springtime observations. But what if things start to change in the dog days of summer and we are deaf to them? Isn’t now time to initiate mass observation and citizen science on the cessation bird song? How about something like a cross between those two scientifically successful and popular schemes: the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and the BTO’s BirdTrack? Maybe call it SongTrack?

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  3. Yes I was uplifted in these dark days to hear and see my first Chiffchaff in the tree above me whilst I worked yesterday 19/3 in Calderdale.

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  4. Our birdsong notice that spring has arrived, among others, is the gabbeling? pre-dawn of a pair of mallard discussing the larger garden pond where the current Mrs Duck thinks the rushes round the edge will be suitable for a nest. The nest is sometimes only 1.5m from where we sit and some years we can never see her nor the dog smell her if the rushes are dense. Some years the top of an adjacent pampas grass proves irresistible as a nest site, which was a bit of a surprise the first time when she blasted out in my face as I removed the old plumes.
    The calls are notice that spring has arrived and the frogs will be arriving soon in the small pond (specially dug form them) and we have to get the net over to stop the ducks hoovering the spawn up.

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  5. I remember in the early 1980s when I was just starting to be more serious about birding, a birder colleague took me, one lunchtime, to Leigh Woods, Bristol in the Spring to listen to (and maybe learn) bird song. Seems straightforward now, but back then I struggled to differentiate between Chiffchaff and Great Tit and it took me a few more outings to master it!

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    1. tperry - Leigh Woods - I remember them well (though I don't recall ever seeing much there, despite what John Gooders's book promised).

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      1. On my old beat ,the first Chiff-chaff was usually about the 23rd March ,always in a wood at the bottom of a hill near the river.

        Over about twenty years this gradually crept forward, until just before i left, the first one was the 12th, heard outside my house at
        a higher and more exposed site.

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  6. Day 4 -- the public parks and green spaces have just closed, so any Chiffchaffs singing down in the wooded and scrubby bits can do so undisturbed from now on. The Great Tits are still in fine voice, whereas the Blackcaps have largely shut up since last week.

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  7. As I cycle (or now in these uncertain times, cycled) into work most spring and summer mornings, I used to take great pleasure at keeping a "cycle to work bird list". I took great personal pleasure from being able to identify most of the bird calls and songs I heard.

    Not in a clever chops, smug kind of way, but as a personal and somewhat intimate, satisfaction that I knew who was calling or singing or alarm calling to or at me as I whizzed (yeah right) by.

    The now long dormant, but much missed, twitcher in me strived to beat my daily record of species seen and heard (currently 37 species) along the 5.1 mile canal route or the 6.5 mile road route.

    The now long dormant, but much missed, twitcher in me also enjoyed the "cycle to work bird list" megas like Green Sand and Mandarin Duck.

    I also enjoyed the uplifting unexpected experiences. Like when a kingfisher made me yelp with fear (ok it was a bit of a scream but I'd rather not admit that) when it took an ill-advised short cut through the canal side Phragmites and just managed to not fly into my left cheek. It alarm called at the same time as me.

    Then there was the frustration of the calls and songs only partly or insufficiently heard, which couldn't be counted on the "cycle to work bird list" but which could have increased the said list by half a dozen species.

    Unfortunately, I couldn't allow these to pass the test of my own personal rarities committee.

    This Bird Song theme is wonderful Mark. It chimes with us all. Maybe because it stirs such a mix of emotions.

    Pleasure, satisfaction, competition. Uplifting unexpected experiences, and even frustration and personal values.

    Feelings we can all interpret in our own ways from hearing, and experiencing bird song.

    Now bird song to me means both solace and great hope in these difficult times.

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  8. Not a particularly exciting song but one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year as, for me also, it heralds the coming Spring more than any other bird song. The promise of better weather and more Summer migrants in the not too distant future. It's a great time of the year!

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  9. Love this series of posts Mark, thank you! Have forwarded to bird-song-learning friends to enjoy. I spent years training my ears and the skill brings so much simple and accessible joy throughout the seasons hearing what's going on around me.... I still remember those crystallising moments of finally pinpointing a singer high up in a tree after frustrated searchings and pausings in undergrowth....
    Incidentally today I awoke to the first Willow Warbler of the year and soon after a Swallow zoomed overhead. Happy birding everyone x

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