For many birders, myself included, a good working knowledge of songs and calls is a weakness compared to their visual ID skills. It is well worth investing some time in improving your knowledge of bird sounds; after all, getting to know commoner bird songs and calls hugely adds to the enjoyment of birdwatching, whether you’re out birding and actively listening, or just walking along the road on a spring day and passively picking up on the sounds overhead. While getting to grips with bird sounds can seem like a daunting prospect, there are a few simple steps you can take that will help you build your experience and confidence. There was a nice piece on BBC Springwatch this year where a young birder was likening knowing bird songs and calls to having a ‘super power’!
So how do you get started? I’d like to draw on my BTO experience of having delivered virtual bird ID skills training this past spring. Our interactive sessions, delivered over Zoom, have proved to be highly effective and popular, and really help trainees through the process of learning and memorising songs and calls. We’ll be offering more courses next spring, where we’ll be providing lots of tips and helping birdwatchers to get the most out of their birding. First things first, however, what is difference between a song and a call?
Songs are for defending a territory and attracting a mate. In the majority of cases, it’s the male bird that does the singing, and singing is typically heightened during the breeding season. Calls on the other hand are made for contact within a flock or between individual birds, and also to warn of danger. Songs are generally much more complex and distinctive than calls.
You can separate songs as being ‘stereotypical’ or not. Stereotypical songs are repeated over and over and are therefore much easier to learn. Good examples are Wren and Chaffinch, with the former belting out its machine gun-like trills from a diverse array of habitats; it’s common, widespread, and loud – a great place to start! Some birds like Song Thrush are definitely not stereotypical in their song, but helpfully they have a habit of incorporating a lot of repetition – listen out for phrases being delivered three times before it moves onto another part of its repertoire and again repeats the phrase three times. They don’t stick to these rules but they are very useful to bear in mind.
Getting to know a few warbler sounds is easier than you might first assume. Warblers rarely show well for long so getting to know a few songs is helpful. Chiffchaff say their name with a simple two-tone ‘chiff chaff’, which is hugely different from the rich descending cadence of its close relative, the Willow Warbler. For the Willow Warbler’s song, I envisage a ball bounding down a flight of stairs and then rolling along the floor, but we all have different ways of learning and more on that later. Grasshopper Warbler gives a long, loud, mechanical song that sounds just like a fishing reel running out, while the Sedge Warbler delivers a frankly bewildering high-speed chatter! Get to know these before you try more complex species like Garden Warbler or Blackcap – a species which unhelpfully throws in all sorts of mimicry along the way!
When learning bird song and trying to describe it, consider the following features:
- Speed of delivery
- Length of phrases
- Pitch – low or high
- Tone of notes – fluty / scratchy / weak / rich
- Repetition of notes or phrases
- …and volume!
Also, remember that habitat, season, and status will hugely help with narrowing down the options of what species you are hearing (if you don’t have a visual).
Try and focus on a species or two at a time and slowly build your repertoire. If you can watch the bird singing then it will really help to embed the song in your head. Move on to calls of common species (again, that you can see calling) and slowly build that familiarity. Some calls are easier than others and no one knows them all!
As mentioned earlier, we all have different learning styles and when delivering training, we try and make sure we cater for everyone’s style, whether it’s visual, aural, written, or action-based. Getting to know your learning style will help you focus on ways to help you progress. Personally, I’m a visual learner (hence always finding song and call harder than visual clues) and oddly enough, one way I’ve found that really works to get songs (and calls) truly ‘stuck’ in my memory is to look at sonograms. These are visual representations of noise, and can be a really useful tool, especially when separating confusion species. A good example is with Great Tit and Coal Tit. Great Tit song is likened to it announcing ‘Teacher! Teacher!’ with nice clear differences between notes. Coal Tit also (sort of) say ‘Teacher, teacher’ but they say it in a much more slurred way. Look at these sonograms and you’ll see what I mean:
Sonogram of Great Tit song. Time is along the x-axis and frequency (how high or low the note is) is on the y-axis. Great Tits clearly enunciate the high and low notes of ‘teacher’ (they had great teachers, you see).
Sonogram of Coal Tit song, almost slurring ‘Teacher, teacher’ without clear differentiation between high and low notes
I highly recommend the wonderful website xeno-canto to search for and explore bird songs and calls. Use the advanced search function to pinpoint your search. I recommend you check for recordings rated ‘A’ and ideally from the UK as some species sound different in other parts of their range. You can find out where the recording was made, what else is in the background, and you can also see a sonogram too. At first glance, the site can feel slightly overwhelming but you just need to know how to navigate your way around it. Check out the SOC’s handy Xeno-Canto user guide
The BTO YouTube channel has all sorts of excellent videos that can help you with your song and call ID – worth looking at if you find you need to focus on a weakness, help to sort some confusion species, or do a wee bit of prep before you head out birding. You can also test yourself using the BirdID.no website where you can do visual and audio quizzes! Register (it’s free) and that way you can save and compare your scores. You can choose levels one to four (four being the most difficult) and again I’d strongly advise limiting it to the birds in the UK while you’re getting started. It’s a very, very useful website, but be warned, it gets addictive!
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You’ll progress with songs and calls if you stick at it. You learn something new every time you go out and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Push yourself and get to know your weaknesses and before you know it, you’ll have developed your very own super power!
Development and Engagement Officer
Sonograms © xeno-canto.org; Great Tit © Steve Willis/BTO; Wren © Allan Drewitt/BTO; Willow Warbler and Geese © Edmund Fellowes/BTO; photo editing by Stephen Hunter