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Learn bird song in 7 easy steps

Monday is Dawn Chorus Day, but as you listen to the morning symphony do you know which tweet is coming from which bird? Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller draws on a lifetime of watching wildlife for his detailed paintings. Here he helps you learn bird song in 7 easy steps.
International Dawn Chorus Day is on Monday, May 7th. But do you know what the early morning symphony is all about? As a wildlife artist, I have a lifetime’s experience of listening to birds in the field and can tell species apart with my eyes shut. But it takes time to learn bird song well enough to decipher the dawn chorus. The repertoire of each bird is far more diverse and intricate than many of us imagine. Each avian songster has an entire vocabulary of calls denoting different meanings. And birds even have different dialects. Did you know, for instance, that a British chaffinch sings an entirely different tune to a Russian one? But to help you make sense of the dawn chorus I’ve broken down the essentials into a simple seven steps.

I’ve also put together an accompanying video featuring detailed paintings of my birds- so if you’re going to get up with the lark for dawn chorus day on Monday you will know what’s what.

  1. Learn Bird Song: 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 either expressions of aggression used to warn off competitors or noisy serenades to attract a mate. The general rule of thumb is that the prettier the tune; the more bellicose the bird that is singing it.

Learn bird song for dawn chorus, robin painting by Robert E Fuller
Robin on Hawthorn, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller Click to Buy

2. Learn bird song: 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.

Learn bird song for dawn chorus. Wren painted by Robert E Fuller
Wren on Hook, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

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 and raucous.

3. Learn bird song: 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.

Learn bird song for dawn chorus kingfisher painting by Robert E Fuller
Colourful Kingfisher, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

On the other hand if you are walking across an arable field and you hear a joyful, exultant stream of song: look up. It’s most likely a skylark. If the sound rises and then falls in a shimmering, trill, look for the jumpy flight of a meadow pipit.

4. Learn Bird Song: 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’ 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. And the ring of a ‘cur-leeew’ over an empty moor needs no introduction.

learn bird song dawn chorus curlew painting by Robert E Fuller
Curlew, limited edition by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

5. 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”.

learn bird song for dawn chorus: yellow hammer, pianted by Robert E Fuller
Yellow Hammer, painted by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

And then there’s the wood pigeon’s eternal complaint: ‘My toe hurts Betty; my toe hurts Betty; my toe hurts Betty. Oooh’. Once you’ve got lyrics in your head it’s easier to remember the tune.

6. 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.

7. Keep it local

Learn bird song for dawn chorus, chaffinch painting by Robert E Fuller
Chaffinch, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

Fascinatingly, birds actually have local dialects. A British chaffinch, for instance, sings a slightly different tune to a Siberian one. But the difference is something only a really committed ornithologist with experience of listening to a range of species across Europe needs to know.

Deciphering the Dawn Chorus

Dawn Chorus Events not to miss: BBC Radio 4 will be following the dawn chorus from Dehli to Dublin. Find out more here. 

The RSPB run a number of dawn chorus events, including this one at RSPB at Black Toft Sands. If you are going to be getting up with the lark to listen click here to find an RSPB event taking place near you.

And this event by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust at Potteric Carr also promises to be inspirational.

wherever you will be when you listen, be sure to remember these 7 simple steps to bird song and you should get more from the dawn chorus.

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2 comments on Learn bird song in 7 easy steps

  1. I believe the sound of a robin is appalling and should never be called a song. It is though well suited to the aggressive nature of the bird.

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