As many of you will know, my passion for wildlife-friendly gardening is matched by my love of birdsong. (You may remember the RSPB Let Nature Single I led the creation of last year, which got to Number 18 in the charts - thanks to all of you who downloaded it to help that happen).

I find that gardening and birdsong complement each other perfectly, for the avian is the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies us as we dig and weed and prune and relax in the garden.

Both topics seem to be striking a very powerful and positive chord in these difficult and challenging times. People are noticing the birdsong around them, I think because of a combination of less traffic and aircraft noise, more time spent in gardens, and the solace and joy it can bring at a time when we really need it.

So, as birdsong is one of the beautiful outcomes of wildlife-friendly gardening, and as it is International Dawn Chorus Day this Sunday 3 May I thought there’s no better topic for today’s blog (and do visit for more things to do and hear).

Right now, with the breeding season in full swing, there is not a moment from dawn till dusk that some bird isn’t singing in my garden. And what a chorus it is! Blue Tits, Great Tits, Blackbirds, Wrens, Dunnocks, Goldfinches, Greenfinches.

But the other thing that is happening right now is all the leaves are unfurling and all the singers are becoming hidden in the foliage.

In many ways, that is why birdsong has come into being – if you are a bird that needs to find and mater and defend a territory, but you also live in trees and bushes, you need to find a way to communicate clearly even if you can’t be seen. That’s where sound is a much better medium than visuals to advertise your presence.

However, the fact that so many birds sing from wihtin cover or the tops of trees can make it more difficult for us to work out who the owner is of each song. But making the effort to learn the singers is well worth it. Once you recognise a voice, it becomes the sound of a friend; your ears open up whenever you hear it.

And when that happens, you are brought right into the moment, and you can leave your worries behind while you listen.

So, what is the best way to get to grips with birdsong? That was the main question in my mind when I set out on my 4-year odyssey to write and record the RSPB Guide to Birdsong, which came out last year.

I’m not going to be able to reveal all in a blog, but I thought I’d illustrate how to start with one of my favourite garden songsters, the Robin. It is such a familiar bird, but many people struggle to recognise its song.

Here’s the big problem. Each song of Robin verse is different than the one before. And each Robin will sing a different song to its neighbour. It’s no wonder that people say, “Well, how am I supposed to learn it, then!?”

But actually the Robin has already given you a clue. Chaffinches, Wrens, Great Tits – they all repeat their verses. Blackbirds and Robins change each time, jamming as they go.

Another thing people don’t often think to listen for is the duration of a song verse. Does it last 2 seconds, 4 seconds, more? Well, Robin song verses are typically rather short, just 1, 2 or 3 seconds, much less than Wren or Dunnock song.

So, you can see there are things to listen for that aren’t all about just trying to convert the sounds into English words, but are about specific elements of the sound.

Once you add in the timbre of Robin song – what you might call its tone – which is all about dribbles and gurgles and trickles, then you’ve got the full kit to be able to identify it.

But what you really need is to be able to hear what I’m talking about, so I’ve made you a little video of a Robin singing in my garden, with my tips on screen as you go. I hope you enjoy.

Adrian’s RSPB Guide to Birdsong is available from the RSPB online shop, helping to raise money for our conservation work. It is set out so that the book and CD/digital download work in tandem like learning a foreign language.

  • Hi there, my husband has constantly been asking me what bird is singing for 20 years, the only birds he can recognise are great tits and yellowhammers!  I believe some of us are highly tuned into birdsong and others aren't, would you agree?     Rachel.