How to recognise a tweet
PUBLISHED: 00:18 25 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:57 20 February 2013
This is the best time of year to start learning the language of the birds, says ornithologist and ecologist Denis Jackson
Have you ever gone for a walk in the British countryside without hearing a bird? Even in the depths of winter, at least a few birds make their presence known by sound and, if we fast-forward a few months from now, and take a walk an hour before sunrise in one of the lovely Wye Valley woodlands, well most likely be overwhelmed by the volume and variety of the bird sounds on offer.
We almost always hear more birds that we see which suggests that sound might be a useful tool for finding birds. For many people however, even those who know their birds, identification by sound is an elusive skill.
Notice I use the term bird sound, rather than bird song. Birds make all sorts of sounds which fall into two broad groups song and calls. Song is about sex and territory. Its usually more complex than calls, and is often highly elaborate. Bird song has evolved over time, as one alternative to high-risk fights for mates and territories. For many species, the louder, more elaborate, or perhaps more frequently repeated, song offers a female bird (it is usually the male that sings) a way to assess his fitness as a breeding partner. For humans, song is usually easier to learn than calls, because mostly they are very different from one species to another. Calls on the other hand can be very similar.
Bird calls are more the general chit-chat of the day. Birds often have several different calls which can signal many things Ive found some food, beware, sparrow hawk about or sometimes, just an Im here to help keep a flock together.
Calls are frequently short (although often repeated) and almost always simpler than song. Theyre also something you will hear all year round. Some birds, such as robins, do sing in the winter but most dont; whereas the need to communicate about predators, and the like, is an ever-present one. Unfortunately, calls are often very similar between species so a bit harder to learn.
Knowledge of bird sounds is a useful tool for anyone wanting to identify the birds around them. Its very rewarding and not at all as difficult as you might think. If you can remember the names of a few tunes you heard on the radio, you also have the ability to recognise and learn bird sounds. You remember the names of those tunes because either something about it was particularly memorable or youve heard it so many times, with the announcer repeating the name, that it eventually sinks in.
If youd like to learn some bird sounds, this is the ideal time of year to start thinking about it.
Why now? Well, firstly, there are far fewer birds here at this time of year than in the spring when all our migrants have returned, so fewer birds around to confuse you. Secondly, there will simply be fewer of our residents singing and calling now too. Ive been surveying birds for many years, but even I have to work very hard when Im out listening to a full-on dawn chorus in late spring. Theres just too much going on. This time of year, on a nice sunny day, when just a few birds are starting to sing, is perfect.
There are some great resources to help us learn bird sounds. There are CDs and DVDs and my personal favourites are the bird sound apps for smartphones.
I hope Ive whet your appetite a little and that you might be encouraged to have a go with your bird sound identification this year. It really can add a whole new dimension to an interest in birds and, all of a sudden, those little brown jobs which are so hard to identify when high in the canopy, rapidly own up to being (say) willow warblers or chiffchaffs the moment they open their bills.
If youd like any advice on bird-sound recordings and applications, do drop me a line and I would be very happy to help. Im also happy to try to identify any recordings you might make of birds in the field something else thats a lot easier to do with modern technology.
Finally, there are plenty of opportunities with your local Wildlife Trust to get out on walks with experienced people who can help. They will know all sorts of little tricks for helping you to remember different birds ...teacher, teacher is a classic way to remember the commonest of the great tits songs (try listening, it really does sound like this) so theres one bird song learned already and everyone has their favourite set.
A topic for another day I think.
Denis Jackson works as people and wildlife manager for Gwent Wildlife Trust and is director of its ecological consultancy, Gwent Ecology.
He can be contacted at Gwent Wildlife Trust, Seddon House, Dingestow, Monmouth NP25 4DY, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 01600 740600.