The peak of the spring dawn chorus is fast approaching and I can’t wait until the full ‘cast’ is assembled and the last of the migrant songsters arrive to add their voice.
The last couple of weeks of April, and first two of May, are when bird song is at its most intense and varied. It’s the time when I encourage everyone to get up early (really early to get the full effect!) just once in the year, to enjoy the most intense and uplifting of natural experiences. You won't regret it, even if you are not normally an early riser!
Of course, you don’t have to be able to recognise a single song to enjoy bird song. Bird song is there to be enjoyed – it’s not a test! The chances are, you’ll want to know what you’re listening to though.
I bet you already know more bird songs that you think. Even if you don’t know many, you’ll soon be impressing your friends by pointing out the fanfares of the song thrush and the dulcet tones of the robin.
The best way to learn birdsong is to sit back, relax and enjoy. Go outside and just listen to the birds singing. There’s no better place to start than on your own doorstep. Garden birds put on a superb performance and you will be able to listen to a good variety of songs. Half a dozen varieties should be possible in, or from, any garden. Up to 15 is possible if you have lots of trees and shrubs around.
Learn the species listed below and you’ll have a great starting point to identify more songs. Get to know the songs you hear most commonly and that unusual song will really stand out.
You may find it helpful to liken bird songs to phrases to help you remember them, or use mnemonics as a learning aid. The yellowhammer’s song is regularly likened to “A little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeese.” Why not come up with your own for those songs that just won’t stick?
Your starter for ten…
Here are ten garden regulars, and widespread birds, that you should try to learn – and some tips to help you identify, and remember, their songs. Click on the name of any of the birds below and you’ll also be taken to our Birds A-Z pages where you can listen to its song - and find out more about the bird.
Excited and varied musical phrases. Rhythm varies - a real performer! Sings for long periods.
Blackbird ‘Laid back’, tuneful, ‘flutey’ song. Slow of pace, but a joy to hear. Often sings late into the evening and is one of the first birds to start in the morning.
Emphatic burst of animated song that starts suddenly and peters out quickly.
Excited ‘twittering’ song often uttered in bat-like display flight overhead or from top of tree. Interspersed with drawn out, wheezy, nasal notes.
The classic great tit song will soon stick in your mind. “Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher.” Bouncy and repetitive. Cheerful and bright.
Easy to overlook among the more extravagant and noticeable songs. A soft, high-pitched, buzzing, trill.
Sudden loud burst of excited song from deep within cover. Series of emphatic trills. Wrens shake with the effort!
Slightly sad, laconic song with a ‘twinkling’ quality. Fades out, then starts up again - varied pace. Quiet and subdued at times.
A scratchy, uncertain warble. Often uttered from a fence or top of a bush.
Superb mimic. Listen for the characteristic ‘clicking’ notes and random warbling interspersed with all kinds of noise they have picked up, from car alarms and drills to other birdcalls and telephones!
Five from further afield
Visit any area of woodland or scrub at this time of year and you stand a good chance of hearing three summer visiting warblers.
The chiffchaff makes it very easy for us. It sings its name. Now why can’t they all do that?! The jerky, repetitive “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff” song will soon get your attention.
The willow warbler, near identical to the chiffchaff in appearance at first glance, does have a very different song. It’s often the best way of telling the two apart! The willow warbler has a delicate descending trill, loose and flowing, cascading down the scale.
Blackcap: A rich, musical warble. Clear and musical. Beautiful phrases. Listen for hard ‘tacking’ call notes inbetween bursts of song.
Warblers aren't the only birds that score an 'A' in music though...
One of the most well-known songs is that of the cuckoo. Sadly a much rarer sound now due to a big decline in cuckoo numbers. This is another bird that makes it easy for you by singing its name. See, I told you already knew more bird songs than you thought!
In open country, farmland and meadows, dunes and moors, listen out for the skylark. You’ll usually need to look up to find the source of the song though. Skylarks start singing at ground level and then work up into the sky, higher and higher until they’re just a speck. Their song is lively and enthusiastic, full of energy.
Take a break
Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, try to steal a few minutes for yourself, for the birds and for music in the next few weeks. There will always be some birds singing, whetever the time of day so you'll never be far from the sound of birdsong this spring.