10 COMMON BRITISH BIRD SONGS
No apologies for starting with our cover star. Its song, commonly rendered as ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, illustrates the difficulties of describing birdsong, but once you remember that it’s predominantly about rhythm, you’ll start to find things much easier. That extended final note is the key. The whole thing is sharp and metallic, and repeated with great regularity.
LISTEN FOR: That long last note – it might well catch your ear first, so work backwards from it if necessary.
COMPARE WITH: Reed Bunting – Slower song, with notes considerably more discrete. Corn Bunting – Brief, fast jangle, like shaking a bunch of keys.
Many people’s favourite British birdsong, and with good reason. It contains considerable variation in its flowing, fluty phrases, which are made up of throaty notes that often peter out into rather hesitant endings. Typically delivered from a prominent perch.
LISTEN FOR: Musicality – no other British bird song sounds so like our idea of music.
COMPARE WITH: Song Thrush – contains much more repetition of phrases, typically three times each. Mistle Thrush – less varied, and with a wilder, less mellow feeling to it.
3 GREAT TIT
The likely culprit for any garden or woodland bird sound that doesn’t match any other species, but the most common song is a loud, strident ‘tea-cherr, tea-cherr’, repeated with great regularity. Also has a ‘swee, swee, swee’ song.
LISTEN FOR: More mechanical, less sing-song quality than Chiffchaff.
COMPARE WITH Chiffchaff – similar two-syllable rhythm, ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff ’, often with an extra note added at the end. Coal Tit – a rhythmic ‘tea-choo, tea-choo, tea-choo’, but far less strident than Great Tit.
A rich, flowing warble, with rippling, clear, silvery notes – unlike many birds, Robins are willing to sing even with humans standing very close by, and also regularly sing during the hours of darkness. The autumn and winter version is more melancholy, with notes fading away.
LISTEN FOR: Its delivery at night – master it in isolation, then it’s unmistakable.
COMPARE WITH Nightingale – also nocturnal, but louder and purer, and with piping, warbling and throaty phrases, punctuated by long silences; also features dramatic crescendos. Redstart – rich and full on arrival, but shorter close to nest sites; several sweet ‘sreee’ notes, with a rather indeterminate finish.
Remarkably loud, and delivered from low down within thick cover. A fast warble containing a very distinctive low, rapid trill.
LISTEN FOR: Volume – by any standards, it’s loud, especially for a bird of the understorey and undergrowth.
COMPARE WITH Dunnock – even in pitch, lasting only a couple of seconds, and not as loud as a Wren’s; usually sung from top of bush. Cetti’s Warbler – sudden and explosively loud, delivered from within cover. Two or three distinct notes, then a fast, rich phrase, and an abrupt end.
6 SEDGE WARBLER
Noisy, fast and varied, alternating musical, rhythmic passages with buzzing and chattering, and often starting with a few rich notes. Delivered from a short, rising song flight, or from the top of a bush.
LISTEN FOR: Agitated, hurried quality, like a bird that has too much it wants to say and too little time in which to say it.
COMPARE WITH Reed Warbler – less angry and scolding, more rhythmic and repetitive, more even in pitch and speed. Grasshopper Warbler – sometimes found close to other two species, but song is a mechanical whirring noise, like a bicycle freewheeling.
Not a thing of beauty exactly, but lively and upbeat, and repeated absolutely tirelessly. A series of short, quite musical, descending notes accelerate into a faster, three-syllable ‘eweetchew’ flourish at the end.
LISTEN FOR: That combination of brash energy and slight harshness.
COMPARE WITH Willow Warbler – Similar rhythmic, musical descent, but less harsh. Starts high and quiet, strengthens, and finishes slow, quiet and a little melancholy. Greenfinch – loud, staccato, trilling rattle, or a wheezy ‘zweeee’.
Starts with a few chattering notes, then mellows into clearer, more fluty and rather melancholy notes, making up a pleasant musical song not wholly unlike the Blackbird’s. Usually sung from within at least partial cover.
LISTEN FOR: Also has a ‘subsong’, of squeaky sounds and some mimicry.
COMPARE WITH Garden Warbler – very similar, but less exuberant, and with less acceleration in the middle. Whitethroat – a short, fast, chattering series of notes from a prominent perch or a short song flight.
9 SKY LARK
Extraordinarily long (usually up to five minutes, and sometimes as much as 20), delivered from a song flight which includes hovering at up to 100m, a slow descent, and a final plunge. Song has lots of repetition of phrases, fast and varied warbles, and a whistling quality at long range.
LISTEN FOR: Length and variety – pinpoint the sound and you’ll see the singer high up.
COMPARE WITH Wood Lark – Short, descending phrases delivered in song flight, repeated regularly, but not as free-flowing as Sky Lark. Meadow Pipit – also performs song flight, with ‘parachuting’ descent; actual song rather thin and weak series of trills and rattles.
Fast and rhythmic, with a thin quality and a flourish at the end – think ‘tidl-de-ee, tidl-de-ee, tidl-de-ee, tidl-de-ee-didl ’. Very high, so difficult to hear for some birders, but often delivered from very close range, from the security of the branches of a conifer.
LISTEN FOR: Its whispery quality – take plenty of time to ‘tune in’ to it.
COMPARE WITH Treecreeper – Quick and rather thin, with a falling pitch and a bit of a flourish at the end, and delivered with great frequency. Blue Tit – a quick, stuttering trill, ‘tsee, tsee, tsee, trrr’.