How to get to grips with birdsong for International Dawn Chorus Day

Birdsong is one of nature’s many free treasures.

Friday, 1st May 2020, 8:47 am
A trio of starlings in song. Picture: Adrian Thomas.

And on Sunday, May 3, its rich tapestry of sound is being celebrated on International Dawn Chorus Day.

The best time to hear the orchestra of birdsong is about an hour before sunrise, around 4.30am. And you can listen to it from the comfort of your own garden during lockdown.

But if you don’t have the trained ear of an ornithologist, how do you tell the song of skulking blackcaps apart from garden warblers or even a robin from a dunnock?

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One man who knows how to learn the avian lingo is Adrian Thomas. The RSPB worker has written the ‘RSPB Guide to Birdsong’ and was heavily involved in the society’s ‘Let Nature Sing’ birdsong single that made the Top 20 last year.

The naturalist has had the ideal upbringing for recognising different bird calls. When he was a young boy, Adrian’s dad used to lead nature walks so people could hear the majestic song of a nightingale. Adrian used to tag along.

He said: “Birdsong is a fabulous natural concert. It is available to all of us for free. It has so much resonance of time and place. I just think of it as the natural soundtrack of our lives.”

But how do we get to know the singers? Sometimes the first step is parents encouraging their young children to mimic the hoot of an owl or the quack of a duck. However, getting your head around the individual calls of the hundreds of birds that live in the UK takes a bit more practice.

A robin bursts into song. Picture: Adrian Thomas.

Adrian likens it to learning a foreign language. In his book, which also features a CD of calls, he encourages people to learn patterns, like figuring out the rise or fall of the song. He also sets handy tests to let his ‘pupils’ get to grips with the basics.

The ornithologist uses a technique called mnemonics - systems for improving and assisting the memory. The song of the great tit is widely known by many birders by the realistic ‘teacher, teacher’ aide-memoire. The chiffchaff also lives up to its name by saying it over and over again.

However, not all birds are so straightforward. Adrian said: “There are some famous ones out there like the yellowhammer’s ‘a little bit of bread, and no cheese’. Well, it doesn’t say that at all. But it has that kind of tripping along type of quality, and then this wheezing note at the end. People really latch on to things like that.”

In his book Adrian also uses graphs to represent sound. He also gives a description of how the bird sounds. Letters fall or rise across the page to give the pattern of the song. For example the heron’s call is simply a very curt ‘FRANK!’. And the wood pigeon’s call is a repetitive complaint of ‘I don’t want to go’.

Author Adrian Thomas recording birdsong in the woods.

The author said: “I hope it will demystify birdsong and help open up the world. So when you are walking through a wood, fields or even out in your back garden, these songs won’t be anonymous. You will know that is a robin singing even though you might not be able to see it. It transforms a walk in the countryside into a walk among feathered friends.”

The RSPB helped take birdsong to a whole new level last year when it released ‘Let Nature Sing’ to raise awareness of the loss of more than 40 million birds from the UK in just 50 years.

The two-minute plus track of pure birdsong features calls like the song thrush and nightingale. Adrian, who recorded the 25 bird songs that feature on the single, said: “We are losing so many of the singers from the natural chorus. If you imagine, we have lost a million skylarks, a bird which has inspired composers and poets. Yet we have lost a million from the British landscape. We have also lost many curlews, which have beautiful bubbling calls that echo across moorland, but it is one of our most threatened species.”

The song got wide airplay on BBC Radio One, Two, Three, Four, Five Live and 6 Music - cutting across many different audiences.

Adrian Thomas has penned the 'RSPB Guide to Birdsong'.

Adrian said: “For Dawn Chorus Day last year we got to number 18 in the charts. Some people said to me, ‘Well, couldn’t you have got to number one?’. But in the modern pop world we were up against the major streaming totals. One of the artists we were up against was Taylor Swift, she had 54 million streams that same week, we can’t quite compete with that.”

But the single wasn’t all about doom and gloom of dwindling bird populations. Adrian added: “There were some sounds of hope in there, like the sound of the trumpeting crane, which is just gaining a proper toe-hold in the UK for the first time in centuries. So we wanted some of that hope to be in there too, because there definitely is hope.”

To watch a video of ‘Let Nature Sing’ visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ge-cYtK8QwI.

An adult wren sings from a branch. Picture: Ben Andrew.