Learning to Birdlisten

Today marks the beginning of a new project: learning to birdlisten. It’s a much-used cliché but I have been an avid birdwatcher since I was a child. I’d sit out in the garden, hold as still as I possibly could, and after a while birds would begin to show, hopping out from under bushes and descending slowly from the treetops. This gradual emergence, the steady drip-drop of birds, was so exciting to me. The species would usually be very common – robin, dunnock, blackbird – but occasionally a blue tit or great tit would appear, and to my amateur eye these were very special indeed.

As my knowledge gradually improved, I began to notice more species and although the trusty robin and dunnock never grew boring, they lost their shine among more colourful or charismatic varieties. One by one I added birds to my repertoire, and although I didn’t notice my mental list growing, soon I could identify a wide range of species. Although waterfowl and waders had their charm, my favourites were always the passerines, or “perching birds”.

Passerines include a subgroup of species we call songbirds but are more accurately named oscines – birds that establish their territories by means of musical vocalisations. It never occurred to me why the singing birds attracted me most, until I turned my attention to listening for birds instead of looking for them, and then it became abundantly clear.

Birdsong is the soundtrack of nature. Even for me, a keen bird enthusiast, birdsong had blurred into the background of my time spent outdoors, nothing more than a pleasant backing track that accompanied my attempts to birdwatch. Why on earth did I let birdsong become such an unimportant feature of the landscape, no more significant than hold music? It was high time that I paid more attention to it, instead of letting it wash over my ears without acknowledgment. It is so true that we see but don’t observe, but it is also the case that many of us hear but don’t listen.

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Author of “Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed” Simon Barnes points out that understanding birdsong allows us to see around corners. There’s a bird hidden up in the canopy somewhere, but unless you know its song you’ll never know what it is. I’ve had this frustration many times, when I see the distorted outline of a bird but no characteristic features that give it away. If I hadn’t neglected my auditory senses, I wouldn’t have been disappointed when the bird hopped further out of view.

And so begins my journey to learn the language of birdsong. It seemed a daunting prospect at first; to my untrained ear all chirrups and whistles sounded identical. However, like any problem, it is imperative to break it down, and that makes it far less intimidating.

I have already made progress. First was the robin: an unmistakable bird in appearance, and a good place to start when learning birdsong because of its presence all year round. During the usually hushed winter months, the robin still sings, an isolated soloist filling cold air with thin, gentle melodies. Spring is by far the most frustrating time to begin birdlistening, so to hear the robin on a chilly February morning with no other avian distractions allows us to begin to tune into this new world I for one took for granted.

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The wren also sings in winter, but has a far louder song bordering on rowdy. For such a small bird, the song bursts out of hedgerows, with a telltale trill at the end of some phrases, like a twirl of icing atop a cake. Then there is the two-note song of the great tit, like the squeak of a saw being pulled back and forth.

And so on. Already my ears are filling with birdsong and I’m really listening this time. Acquiring the skill of understanding this rich and varied language will not only help me become a better birdwatcher, but it will pave the way to a clearer understanding of nature as a whole – appreciating nature’s vibrant soundtrack.

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6 thoughts on “Learning to Birdlisten

  1. Well said! I’ve been searching for a bird equivalent to shamaz but to no prevail, so think I’ll develop my ability to match the sound to the bird the old fashioned way – through books. Love some of your analogies of bird songs.

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    1. That would be really useful, I’m just trying to learn the common ones but even then they have different phrases. A great tit on the Isles of Scilly sounded very different to one in Carlisle!

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      1. I definitely think that’s the case with individuals that are geographically isolated from other populations, like on Scilly for example. It makes you wonder how two separated populations would interact with each other if they were introduced!

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      2. Indeed. Would there be the same confusion that often comes between people with varied accents? “I think he’s trying to say ‘this is my territory’, or it could have been ‘cherry tree'”‘

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