Have you ever strolled through the countryside wondering what bird you just heard? Or what the different tweets and chirrups of UK songbirds actually mean?
For many, birdsong is simply the white noise that accompanies being out of doors. But for me these avian calls are like the daily broadcast; they tell me what’s happening and where. I’m constantly tuned into bird chatter and if I hear a noise out of place, I stand stock still and wait until a predator emerges, slinking from the shadows.
Over the years I have become so attuned to birds that I can tell the separate voices of different birds - even during the clamour of the dawn chorus, when all the birds sing out at once to herald the arrival of spring. In fact I like to sleep with the window open so that every morning when all the birds are in full throat I can test myself by working out which bird is out there tweeting and what they are saying to one another.
Birds have surprisingly complex vocabularies. Blackbirds, for example, are very precise. They make differently-pitched alarm calls to warn one another of imminent danger. Their low-toned note means a ground predator, like a fox, their high pitched shrill says the hunter is airborne, perhaps a sparrowhawk. When I’m out in a hide, it’s the birds that tell me to get my camera ready.
The ability to understand the meaning of birdsong is becoming a lost art. But it’s a skill that is well-worth learning.
This week I've been busy putting the final touches to my latest collection of paintings of UK songbirds, which opens on June 10. As part of the exhibit I'll be hosting guided walks into the countryside to listen to birdsong. See below for a choice of walks in different habitat, including woodland, wetland and even my through my garden in Thixendale, and to book.
Below I’ve summarised six top tips for picking up the basics of the forgotten language of birds. Click on the images of my paintings to listen to the sound the bird makes, courtesy of www.british-birdsongs.uk.
Start with signature tunes.
Among the UK’s native species there are definite ‘songsters’. These are birds with beautiful voices, like blackbirds, robins, skylarks, song thrushes and chaffinches, and each has its own, distinct signature tune. Once you’ve learned a bird’s jingle, you can always pick it out, even if it only sings a few phrases of the melody.
Although these songs sound joyful, they are actually expressions of aggression used to warn off competitors or noisy serenades to attract a mate.
Build on what you already know
Most of us already have a basic knowledge of birdsong. Without even realising it, even the most unversed in nature know the hoot of a tawny owl or a cuckoo’s call.
It’s not difficult to add to this the ‘Repeat, repeat’, ‘repeat’ of a song thrush or the incessant, noisy chitter of a wren. For such a tiny bird, a wren’s ditty is particularly loud. I’ve painted this characterful bird many times and I like to depict it with its beak open in noisy song.
|Wren on Cherry Blossom, by Robert E Fuller|
Fit the sound to your surroundings.
If you are by a river or a stream, for instance, and you hear a loud, piping call then look out for the electric-blue of a kingfisher as it flashes past. Similarly grey wagtails make a sort of ‘chiswick’ call that is so loud you can hear it above the sound of crashing water. These beautiful birds have lemon-yellow bellies, despite their name.
|A Splash of Colour, painted by Robert E Fuller|
Listen to birds that say their own names.
Cuckoos, curlews, kittiwakes and chiffchaffs are named after the calls they make. Listen out for the ‘chiff’ ‘chaff’ of a chiffchaff next time you are walking through scrubland or woodland.
If you are by the sea, a kittiwake will say its name to you ‘kitty-waake’ ‘kitty-waake’ as it soars over precipitous coastal cliffs.
|Curlew, by Robert E Fuller|
Add lyrics to the melody
Some bird songs sound like nursery rhymes. A yellow hammer is said to be saying: “A little bit of butter and nooo cheeese”. Once you’ve got lyrics in your head it’s easier to remember the tune.
|Yellow Hammer, by Robert E Fuller|
Watch out for mimics
Things get tricky when you get one bird mimicking another. Only the very best songsters can do this and the trick is part of a male’s noisy strategies to impress a mate. I recently heard a starling impersonating a curlew. Only the chatter of ‘starling’ that it emitted shortly before and afterwards gave the game away.
My exhibition Birdsong: Sounds of the Wolds, runs from June 11-July 3rd at mygallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. Below is a list of walks to listen to birdsong. Click on the title to book a place.
Join our expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this informative walk through an ancient wood to listen out for and identify birdsong.
The best way to spot a bird in the wild is to learn its individual call and then look out for the bird itself. Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he helps you listen out for birdsong and then learn which bird is hitting which notes. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.
Join our expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this informative walk around the shallows and reed beds of this bountiful bird sanctuary. A former quarry, the lakes of North Cave Wetlands now team with wildlife whilst the grassy banks are a flutter with butterflies, drangflies and damselflies.
Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he shows you how to listen out for warblers, wildfowl and waders and learn how to identify their individual calls. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.
Join our expert bird watcher Jack Ashton Booth as he helps you unscramble the season's morning serenades. Let him teach you how to identify which bird is singing which song at this magical time. Learning birdsong is the best way to identify birds in the wild. What better start than learning how to decipher the dawn chorus?
A walk through the stunning Yorkshire Wolds landscape to look and listen for its songbirds. Expert bird watcher and naturalist Jack Ashton-Booth will share his wealth of expertise with you and teach you how to listen and then look for finches, goldcrest-even buzzards and red kites. Enjoy browsing wildlife artist Robert E Fuller’s stunning paintings of these birds at his gallery in Thixendale before setting off to see the birds for real.
Join expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this atmospheric walk to look for bird species that are at their most active during twilight hours.
Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he guides you through this beautiful woodland. Listen out for woodlark, green woodpecker and woodcock and see them as they flit through the trees at dusk. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.
See the fastest birds in the world as they swoop over the medieval ramparts of York Minster and learn the meanings of their different calls This walk is led by acclaimed birdwatcher Jack Ashton-Booth, a leading member of York Peregrines - the organisation that keeps a daily log of the peregrines living on the minster. Let him show you these magnificent birds as they hunt and help you look out for signs that the pair may be nesting high up in the gothic towers