How to identify bird song

How to tell the difference between bird calls and bird songs.


Being in a wood on a summer morning can be a daunting experience for any birder. The trees are thick with foliage and the birds largely invisible, but all around is a bewildering wall of sound. It can be difficult to pick out individual songs and calls, let alone to work out the species responsible.


When it’s a struggle, my solution is to throw back my head, shut my eyes and simply enjoy the natural orchestra.

    • Birds make two basic types of noises: contact calls, which include alarm calls, and songs, a more complex series of notes. Contact calls tend to be short sounds that, in certain small birds, are frustratingly similar.
    • Alarm calls, by their very nature, are harsh and loud. They include the explosive chattering of blackbirds and the churring of blue tits. Listen out for these avian warnings, especially if you are in a wood, because they could lead you to a roosting tawny owl.
    • Songs, by contrast, are all about attracting mates and staking out territory, and the best time to enjoy them is dawn. Memorise the song of your favourite species – say, the greenfinch’s wheeze – then go to your local patch and chart where different individuals are singing, marking out their territories.
    • Bird songs differ greatly in their construction and volume. Bullfinches have a barely audible, simple string of notes, while blackbirds, blackcaps and nightingales produce rich, evocative arias. Wrens emit strident bursts, and song thrushes repeat a loud and vibrant three-note refrain. Great tits have a huge repertoire: it’s often said that if you hear an unfamiliar call, it’s bound to be one of them!
  • Finally, you can also learn bird songs by recording them on your mobile phone or a dictaphone, and then compare them to recordings available on the RSPB’s website or in MP3 player applications.
  • Someone I play football with recently brought me a recording of “a mechanical noise” that he heard in his garden. It turned out to be a chiffchaff, and he has developed such an affinity for the tiny sprite that he has a painting of one hanging in his living room.
Load up common bird songs and calls on your smartphone and, while travelling to and from work, familiarise yourself with 10 species that live in your area.