Bird Language

By Violet Maxse, (from Wildlife Sound #5, February 1972)

Goldfinch
Goldfinch, photo Gareth Thomas FRPS

We belong to a Society composed of people of many interests, and one of the problems our members face is how can the naturalist, with many years experience in the field, become an efficient electrician and recordist; and how can the electrician who already has the requisite electrical know how become a naturalist, in order to obtain the knowledge and habits of animal, insect and bird sounds he wishes to collect; where to find his 'prey' and correctly identify it when he has found it. Many people think that he is the one facing the greater challenge.

To meet this challenge I advise him to start in December; leave his recorder at home and regard his binoculars and his notebook as the most important parts of his equipment and his own ears must replace his microphone. There are many advantages to this course of action, especially if birds are to be his main source of study. During the time that the trees are bare, the binoculars can be used to their greatest advantage. The watcher must be prepared to move step by step, both literally as well as figuratively, and will find many of the sounds of our resident birds before the months of May and June when the leaf canopy conceals everything, the migrant birds from overseas have arrived and the chorus is overwhelming.

The reader may have noticed that I use the word sound and not song; there s considerable difference between those two terms when speaking of bird language. Bird song plays much the most important part in the reproductive cycle, but there is in addition the alarm note, the scolding note, the feeding call, the anxiety note, the flock call and the sounds made when in flight. If the budding ornithologist can learn to distinguish some of these sounds among our common resident species during the winter and early spring, he will be less overwhelmed in early and late summer when the migrants have arrived. He would be well advised to study a small area of ground and patrol it as often as time permits.

One day in late December I left my house to visit a friend and during the afternoon drove to several places that were good vantage points over a river valley. The winter song of the Robin and Dunnock saw me off from my own garden and later on when the sun was setting, the breeze dropped and I heard several song thrushes clearly across the stillness of the valley. A Mistle Thrush sang form a tall perch, more than one Blackbird darted into the thicket uttering his well known alarm phrase; back in my own garden several Blackbirds were flitting from perch to perch cocking their tails bent on telling a bedtime story before going to roost for the night. Cock Pheasants have similar habit and keep up their strange chorus until the hoot of the Tawny Owl rends the air. All this happened on one of the shortest days of the year.

A further step forward is to visit a Starling or Rook roost. Your local Natural History Society can help you here and providing it is a calm evening this time the tape recorder can also come. In the autumn Starlings migrate to Britain form Northern and Central Europe in their millions, spend the winter here, and gather for the night in tens of thousands, choosing the same wood as a dormitory year after year. This highly audible nightly spectacle might well be the first flight sound in your collection of recordings.


Rook Roost, Norfolk, 23 Feb 2007

Later it might be joined by the tumbling aerobatics of the Green Plover or Peewit [Lapwing] proclaiming its territory to his rivals. Your home Starling is not to be despised in the variety of his chatter and squeaks, especially when the days lengthen, even in the dullest of weathers his voice will become louder and his rattling phrases longer. The best microphones in the world, namely your own two ears, keep you in touch with the most persistent if not the most beautiful of the harbingers of spring. Do not let us forget our Rook roost - it is almost invariably shared with Jackdaws, a smaller bird whose note is pitched considerably higher. Once this difference is grasped, you may wander away to wild and lonely places; the Carrion Crow and Raven will be easier to identify.

Let us return to the area of garden, hedgerow, field and woodland the watcher has chosen for his patrol. By mid-February those voracious feeders at the bird table will become more vocal. The Blue Tit gives a ringing call that descends the scale by a few notes; the Great Tit repeatedly says "teacher, teacher, teacher"; the Coal Tit has a treble note of a similar kind; that convivial bird, the Chaffinch, invites you to have "half-a-pint of the very best beer". Along the hedgerow the "hungry" Yellow Bunting [Yellowhammer] repeats "A little bit of bread and NO cheese", though he omits the cheese at first. From low down in the thicket comes the sound of a large, old-fashioned watch being would up; it comes from a tiny Wren who will produce the most formidable shout for you when mid-March arrives; according to some listeners his rhythm is "I sing merrily-merrily-merrily I sing!" The three brightly coloured members of the Finch family, the Green, Gold and Bullfinches are not far away, though their voices are best recorded in July when the rest of the bird world has gone into the post breeding moult and is more silent.

At this stage of the awakening year the Skylark is in full song, the Blackbird nearly so, and what a beautiful song it is compared with the alarm note and the "bed time story" we heard in December!

All these familiar inhabitants of our gardens, commons, woods and field, will keep you busy until mid-April when the places with which you have become familiar will also be harouring the early spring migrants. Let the beginner beware! You may think that you have mastered the songs of the Dunnock and the Robin we first met in mid-winter. In April both increase their range of notes and repertoire of phrase considerably, then when the migrant arrives the confusion becomes confounded.


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