Why Learn Bird Song?
The first bird song we are probably all aware of is the cuckoo, with it’s distinctive call, cu — ckoo, cu — ckoo.
Most of us can recognise a few birds, even if we aren’t die-hard twitchers. But it’s less common to be able to identify birds by their song.
I first learnt bird song properly when I was an ecologist in Scotland — and I think the first bird song I got to grips with was actually the chaffinch. Bird identification and bird song was a large part of my survey work, and each year I learned more and more.
Now as a wildlife photographer, being able to pick up bird song helps me to identify, track and find birds, rather than just relying on sight alone.
Being able to distinguish between songs, alarm calls, social calls can also help predict bird behaviour — which can be a real bonus for photographers if you’re looking for a particular shot.
And of course, being attuned to the different songs really does help with immersion into the environment and enhance that appreciation for nature which is what made me want to get out in the field in the first place.
It didn’t all come at once, that’s for sure. Over the years of bird surveys, bird watching and bird photography, I’ve built up a library which I can add to as I go.
At the end of this post, I list 10 common birds in the UK & Europe to get you started, with a description and a clip of their song.
But before we get to that, whether you’re just starting out, or you want to pick up a few more species, here are my tips for how to brush up on your bird song.
1. LISTEN, FOLLOW & FIND
Firstly, you need to get out into the field and find the birds. Get used to listening out for calls, distinguishing them if you can by listening out for patterns, and then follow the sounds until you can find the bird. This method works well as you get to listen to the song over and over until you find the bird.
A song thrush is a great example because it repeats its song three times before changing to a new refrain, and repeating that three times. Listen out for it, and see if you can find it.
The wren also has a really distinctive song, and it’s really rewarding to hear such a loud and powerful song coming from such a tiny bird.
Some people like to sketch the bird that they see — obviously I prefer to take photographs. But connecting the sound with the visual image of the bird is how you’ll build up that familiarity.
2. Learn Common Birds First
It’s best to start out with the easy birds, or the common ones. Once you’ve got the common or easy songs pinned down, it means that when you hear something new you can focus on it and block out the things that you do know.
Song thrush as I mentioned above is an easy one to get to grips with. Chaffinch, robin, wren and blackbird are also ones you’ll want to learn so that then you can start to listen out for the more exotic sounding birds.
3. Learn or Create Mnemonics
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here — over time twitchers and other bird enthusiasts have coined phrases or mnemonics to help recognise bird song.
One of my favourites is for yellowhammer. If you listen out carefully, you might be able to make out it singing: “A little bit of bread and no cheeeeese”.
Some birds are named after their song of course, like the cuckoo, and kittiwake, from the screech of their call: “Kitt-eee-wake.” Chiffchaffs are also quite distinctive sounding, with their unmistakable “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff”.
Great tits call out a memorable song, “Teach-er, teach-er,” though some say they sound like a rusty old bicycle that needs to be oiled.
Try making up your own to help you remember bird songs that you’re learning and keep a note so you can keep reminding yourself.
4. USE APPS & SOUND RECORDINGS
Listening to bird song is also a great way to familiarise yourself with bird songs and help you remember it in the field.
There are some great videos and tools available for recordings of bird song — one of the better-known ones is Xeno Canto.
I used to have the CD’s from Geoff Sample’s Birds Songs And Calls in the car that I would occasionally listen to in order to swot up on some songs if I knew what I was looking for.
In the field, I use the Collins Bird Guide app IOS or Android which I can’t recommend enough. It’s an adaptation of the Collins Bird Guide book (the bible for bird identification in Europe) but includes song, calls and ability to compare species side by side and best of all it’s always with you. I like to have a copy of the book at home for reference, but the ability to check quickly in the field with the app.
The only thing to really be aware of is to avoid playing these songs out in the field. It can be tempting to lure a bird into sight — but it does really disrupt their behaviour and there are big ethical question marks over doing that. So try to avoid it if you can!
And lastly, at least for the audio aspects, I’d really recommend the audiobook: Tweet of the day. It’s maybe not targeted, but you’ll get to learn lots of (random) European bird songs along with interesting facts — and you never know when bird facts are going to come in handy.
That brings me to my last point.
5. Always be Birding
Birds are everywhere, found on every continent. By always keeping an eye and ear on them, you’ll always be learning, and always be adding to the library you are building up in your memory.
I’m always surprised when spring and summer roll around and the migrations get underway just how much I remember from last year, and how easy it is to pick up again.
Over time, that really does form a bigger picture in your mind as you pay attention to what you saw and heard, and where and when.
Before you know it, you’ve actually turned into a die-hard twitcher, complete with bird records journal and never further than 3 metres from your binoculars at all times.
So that might be enough for you to get to grips with for now. But if you do want to really get stuck in, I’ve pulled together 10 common European birds to get you started.
10 common birds we get in Europe to get you started
For the description of the songs I’ve borrowed from Collins Bird Guide, what I’ve been told when I was learning and some I’ve made up myself.
1. Robin Bird Song
The robin is often referred to as jazzy and doesn’t tend to repeat itself. Personally I’m always reminded of Tinkerbell in the Movie Hook when I hear a robin sing, there’d always be a sort of chime whenever Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell would show up. If it’s actually a similar sound, I don’t even know. It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but that doesn’t’ really matter as it’s always helped me recognising it in the field.
Robin, Erithacus rubecula
2. Blackbird Bird Song
The blackbird is known for its melodic, slow whistle with a twitter appending. Its verses are short and often repeated at 3-5 sec intervals.
Blackbird, Turdus merula
3. Wren Bird Song
For such a small bird it’s one of the loudest around, I often find it’s the wren song that I hear at 4 am while camping and I can’t sleep. Consistently repeated series of metallic ringing notes and trills. Listen out for the rapid rattle it usually starts a bit into its song.
Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes
4. Goldfinch Bird Song
The goldfinch has a quiet rapid song of trills and notes. To me, it always reminds me of porky pig in Looney Tunes when the show is about to end and Porky starts his stutter of hubd..hubddeubbde….that’s all folks!
Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis
5. Dunnock Bird Song
The dunnock has a clear and quite loud song that it tends to repeat very similarly again and again.
Dunnock, Prunella modularis
6. Great Tit Bird Song
A loud song that sounds like: teach-er, teach-er!
Great Tit, Parus major
7. House Sparrow Bird Song
The house sparrow has not so much of a song as a series of mono syllabic chirps varied throughout.
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
8. Chaffinch Bird Song
The chaffinch tends to repeat its song again and again. Bright, loud almost rattling verse that builds up and ends in a lively flourish.
Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs
9. Blue Tit Bird Song
The blue tit has a couple of drawn-out sharp notes followed by a trill on a lower pitch.
Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus
10. Song Thrush Bird Song
The song thrush loudly repeats itself three times, but it can’t count so it gets it wrong sometimes.
Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos
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