Thursday, May 5, 2016

Understanding Bird Song

I usually sleep with the window open, which means I wake up each morning to a cacophony of bird song. Before I get up, I like to test my knowledge by picking out which species are out there and what they are saying to one another.
As spring turns to summer this can become quite a challenge. The noise coming from more than 60 different species all singing at once at the tops of their voices gets very confusing. Particularly as some birds will mimic one another.
But learning the meaning of bird calls is crucial to understanding and studying wildlife in any depth. Next month I’m going to be sharing the knowledge I have gleaned over a lifetime of studying birds for my paintings at a special exhibition on British songbirds at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire.

'Wren in Cherry Blossom', painting by Robert E Fuller

Each bird species has a clearly identifiable song as well as a repertoire of different calls inferring different meanings. You get loud, melodic phrases sung by adult birds announcing their territory or trying to attract a mate. Blackbirds have one of the most tuneful of these harmonies. Then you hear more subtle, intimate contact calls made between breeding birds. A tawny male will trill like an ocarina to attract a mate.

And then again there are the urgent cries of chicks demanding food from their parents. Some chicks, like long-tailed tits or tree creepers, which tend to form small creches after they have fledged to keep one another warm at night, have developed their own distinct calls to keep in contact.

But the most important set of bird calls to learn is the alarms they shout out to alert one another when there is a predator about. Knowing these means you too can be alert to the presence of other wildlife.
Again it is worth mentioning the blackbird. These birds have an entire repertoire of different alarms signifying different types of predators. It is quite astounding how precise each call can be.

A blackbird in snow, photograph by Robert E Fuller
For instance, a soft, one-toned call means there is a ground predator about, possibly a weasel, stoat or pine marten; whereas a high-pitched, one-toned shrill, means a sparrowhawk in the air above.
However if there is a sparrowhawk perched nearby, sitting close to its nest for instance, the blackbird makes an altogether different sound. This time it is a continuous, chinking, harassing, call. This noise can also mean there is a tawny owl roosting nearby. Other birds, like wrens, chaffinches and greenfinches, often join in with blackbirds to shout down a predator. Together they can make a real din.When I am inside a hide my field of vision is limited and so I rely on these alarm calls. If I hear them I get my camera ready.
A traditional way to learn birdsong is to add lyrics to the tune. Yellow hammers have a familiar, nursery rhyme melody, which sounds like: ‘A little bit of butter and nooo cheeeese”. I recently watched five male red starts chasing a female. To attract her attention, they flashed their russet tails whilst mustering their very best harmonies. These striking birds, which are closely related to robins, migrate in large numbers to the Yorkshire Wolds each summer to breed. But despite their quantities, they are hard to spot. The trick is to listen for their noisy alarm calls and then stand still until they resume their normal activities.

Yellow Hammer, painting by Robert E Fuller
My exhibition in June will feature a new series of paintings of British song birds as well as master classes on deciphering the dawn chorus and nature walks to learn birdsong in the wild.

Songbirds: Sounds of the Wolds runs from June 11th-July 3rd at The Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale. Please see my website for details and times of accompanying events.

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