Name that song – it’s the perfect time to learn to identify birds

Name that song – it’s the perfect time to learn to identify birds

As our cities, and even parts of the countryside, have fallen eerily silent, with traffic and aircraft a distant memory, many of us have started to notice a new sound: birdsong.

Now that spring has well and truly sprung, this is the ideal time to get to know your local birds. Spotting them is one way to identify common species, but why not try learning their songs, too? That’s not as easy as it sounds: rather like learning a foreign language, it can be pretty daunting. But with patience, time and effort, it can be done – just follow these simple steps:

1 Sit in your garden if you have one, or take your daily walk, either early in the morning or during the hour or so before sunset, when the volume and intensity of birdsong is at its peak.

2 Listen to the bird first; then try to get a good look at it, to help you identify the species.

3 Use mnemonics (see below) to help you remember which bird makes which sound.

4 Focus on only one or two species each day. Then, when you get home, listen to recordings of their songs, and when you go out the next day, try to hear them again.

5 As Bill Oddie says, think about the rhythm, tone and pitch of each song: fast or leisurely; cross or plaintive; high, low or medium pitch?

Remember, practice makes perfect – and you’ll never have a better opportunity than now!

Birds


Great tit

Great tit

Sparrow-sized, with a black head, white cheeks, a green back and a black stripe down the front. It sings a syncopated “tea-cher, tea-cher” song: hence “the teacher bird”.

Listen here to the great tit


Blue tit

Blue tit

Small and perky, with blue and yellow plumage, and white cheeks. Its song is not very tuneful; it always sounds rather cross.

Listen here to the blue tit


Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

Tiny and round, with a long tail sticking out behind like a flying lollipop. Makes a variety of high-pitched calls – “see-see-see” – and a soft farting sound.

Listen here to the long-tailed tit


Blackbird

Blackbird

In terms of appearance, the male does what it says on the tin; the female is brown. Its song is deep and fluty in tone, and very measured in pace and rhythm.

Listen here to the blackbird


Song thrush

Song thrush

The classic thrush, with brown back and spotted breast. Its song consists of repeated phrases, as if the bird is conducting a one-sided conversation.

Listen here to the song thrush


Robin

Robin

Unmistakable, perky and plump with that famous red breast – both males and females. The song is delicate and measured, with each phrase followed by a pause.

Listen here to the robin


Dunnock

Dunnock

Once called the hedge sparrow, the dunnock is dark greyish-purple and brown, with a thin bill. Its song is a rather unremarkable series of warbling notes.

Listen here to the dunnock


Wren

Wren

Tiny, plump and chestnut-brown, with a cocked tail and short, whirring wings. The wren is amazingly loud for its size, producing a high-pitched, trilling song.

Listen here to the wren


Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

A small, slender, olive-green warbler that sings its own name: “chiff-chaff-chiff-chiff-chaff”, often pumping its tail up and down while doing so.

Listen here to the chiffchaff


Blackcap

Blackcap

A robin-sized warbler: grey with a black cap (male) and chestnut cap (female). Its tuneful, powerful song sounds like a speeded up robin.

Listen here to the blackcap


Goldcrest

Goldcrest

Britain’s smallest bird, weighing the same as a 20p coin. Tiny, plump and green with a gold flash on the crown. Fast, rhythmic song.

Listen here to the goldcrest


Pied wagtail

Pied wagtail

A slender, graceful, black-and-white bird with a long, permanently wagging tail. It feeds on the ground and calls “chis-ick” in flight – hence “the Chiswick Flyover”.

Listen here to the pied wagtail


Swallow

Swallow

Superbly sleek and slender bird found in rural areas, with a long, forked tail and broad, triangular wings. Light, warbling song. Back in early April.

Listen here to the swallow


House martin

House martin

Shorter and more compact than a swallow, the house martin is found in urban areas. Looking like a miniature killer whale, it twitters in flight. Back mid-April.

Listen here to the house martin


Swift

Swift

The swift has a cigar-shaped body and long, scythe-like wings, with all-dark plumage. Flocks tear across city skylines, screaming as they go. Back in late April or early May.

Listen here to the swift


Cuckoo

Cuckoo

The classic sound of spring, yet rarely heard nowadays, even in former haunts. It looks like a hawk: slender, long-tailed, with long, curved wings. Sings its name.

Listen here to the cuckoo


Chaffinch

Chaffinch

The male is smart with a pink breast, grey head and white wingbars; the female has the same pattern, but lacks colour. Its song sounds like a cricketer running up to bowl, with a flourish at the end.

Listen here to the chaffinch


Goldfinch

Goldfinch

A small, brightly coloured finch with black and buff plumage, a red face and gold flashes on the wings. Light, fast and tuneful song.

Listen here to the goldfinch


Greenfinch

Greenfinch

The male is bright green with yellow wing flashes; the female is duller green. They produce a wheezy song, often delivered in slow, circular flight.

Listen here to the greenfinch


House sparrow

House sparrow

Once common, now missing from many places. The male has a grey crown and black bib; the female is duller brown. Its song has a chirpy, friendly sound, suiting its sociable nature.

Listen here to the house sparrow

Stephen Moss is an author and naturalist, who teaches an MA in travel and nature writing at Bath Spa University. His latest book is The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife (Guardian Faber)

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