For the second instalment in my occasional series of beginning birdwatching blogs, I explore sound, and the joys of birdsong.
Whilst learning birdsong is a key part of learning and improving your bird identification skills, I would not ordinarily focus on song before addressing subjects such as equipment and field craft, but as May is the peak month for birdsong, I thought I should strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.
First, let me answer the obvious question of why birds sing. There are two primary reasons for birdsong: to mark out and maintain a territory, and to attract and retain a mate. This is why most birds only sing during the spring, although a few species, such as robins and wrens, will sing throughout the winter as they also maintain feeding territories.
Second, let's look at the different types of sounds made by birds. All birds make a noise of some sort, but not all birds sing. Song is for courtship and display, but birds also have a variety of contact calls, alarm calls and other vocalisations that make the art of bird identification even more tricky. For example, if you are walking through woodland and hear an unfamiliar call, the chances are it will be either great tit or chaffinch.
Great tits have about 100 different calls. Photo by Jon Evans
To complicate things even more, some bird sounds are neither song or call. A drumming great spotted woodpecker, for example, makes its sound by rapidly tapping at a hollow trunk, while a drumming snipe's "song" is the result of air vibrating the outer tail feathers as the bird dives to the ground. You can hear mute swans flying from quite some distance due to thud of their wings through the air, and many ducks have distinctive "wingbeat sounds."
But back to birdsong. How do you go about learning it? Here's a few tips for you.
1) Start as early as possible. We all learn best as children, so ideally encourage your children to start learning birdsong. For those of us who have left it to adulthood, you can still learn, but you may have to work harder
2) Make it a New Year resolution and start in January when only a handful of species are singing and there are no leaves on the trees to obscure the songsters. If you learn robin, wren, dunnock, song thrush and skylark in January, then you may be familiar with those by the time great tit, blue tit, chaffinch, greenfinch and blackbird tune up in February. Chiffchaffs will join the chorus in mid March, and blackcap towards the end of the month, by which time you need to know our resident songsters ready for the influx of warblers and other summer migrants throughout April and May. Most birds will then reduce their singing through June and July, with only a few species singing for the second half of the year.
Song thrushes are one of the first birds to sing each year. Photo by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
3) Get up early. Birdsong peaks soon after dawn each morning as each individual reminds its neighbours that "this is my territory and I'm still here." There will be fewer birds singing during the middle of the day before they all join in again during the less well known dusk chorus.
4) Repetition. Go outside as often as possible during spring so that you hear birdsong every day. The more you hear something, the easier it will enter your subconscious.
5) Use expert help. Take any opportunity you can to pick the brains of others. Ask other birdwatchers, or better still join a guided walk. At Minsmere we run regular Sounds of Spring walks throughout April and May to help visitors learn birdsong. The added bonus with these walks is that we include a light breakfast after the walk. To book your place on one of the remaining walks this spring, click here.
Sedge warbler is one of the species that you'll hear on our Sounds of Spring walks
6) Buy or download a birdsong CD or App and play it regularly. Ideally, choose one that introduces the species. Perhaps you can listen to it whilst at the gym, driving or even going to bed, as subliminal learning can really help.
7) If you don't recognise a song, record it. We all carry mobile phones with cameras these days, so switch you camera to video mode. You can play us the song in the visitor centre or post it to Twitter, and we'll try to identify it for you.
8) Be realistic. Don't expect to learn everything in one go. Select one or two species that you'd like to learn each year and focus on those.
9) Do your research first. If you want to hear a nightingale, then you need to go somewhere that nightingales occur. You won't, for example, be likely to hear one if you live in Wales, Scotland or most of northern and western England, so you may need to plan a holiday to East Anglia or Southeast England (most nightingales breed in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Kent and Sussex, and certainly south of a line from the Isle of Wight to the Wash). Nightingales also only sing for about six weeks from mid April to late May, so outside that period you are unlikely to hear one.
10) Simply enjoy listening to birds, even if you can't identify the sounds. There is something relaxing about sitting quietly outside and listening to birdsong. So much so that this week the RSPB released our first ever single with aim of getting birdsong to Number One in the UK charts. Wouldn't it be great if two and half minutes of birdsong could pip Taylor Swift and Stormzy to the top spot. Please help us by downloading the Let Nature Sing single by midnight tonight. Simply follow the links from our website or search or your usual music streaming services.
Happy listening folks.
The UK's favourite songbird is the blackbird, which can be heard from most gardens throughout the spring and features on the Let Nature Sing single. Photo by Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
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