By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
In the first of a new series of blogs, I'm going to be exploring the wonderful world of bird song (with some calls thrown in for good measure!) There's surely little more calming to human ears than the annual serenade of spring song. Each day, prior to the sun's appearance above the horizon, birds begin to advertise their presence, demonstrating their strength and ability in song. This serves not only to attract a mate but also to deter rivals. As you wake in the morning, during these times of increased isolation, take a moment to notice the birds who break the morning silence, the Robin, the Blackbird and perhaps the Song Thrush. Enjoy the widening chorus as Wren, Starling, Chaffinch and Dunnock join in. The complexities of bird song may not be easy to get to grips with, but why not take the time to learn? The satisfaction to be gained from identifying birds by song (and calls) really can't be overemphasised - it's truly a window into another world.
1# Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Let's start with the Chaffinch, our most familiar British Finch. Perhaps surprisingly it's the UK's third commonest breeding bird after Wren and Robin, estimated at more than 6 million pairs. It was originally a woodland species but has since branched out into farmland, parks, gardens, towns, pretty much anywhere in fact. There's little doubt it's a supremely adaptable bird, thriving in areas with Oak, where a plentiful supply of invertebrates are found. They are of course often seen foraging on the ground and it's always a joy to see their flashy salmon pink and blue-grey combination. Considering their abundance, there's something about the Chaffinch which is probably much overlooked - it's absolutely beautiful, though admittedly, in contrast, the female is somewhat drabber.
The Chaffinch is also responsible for the very naming of its entire family. The second half of the name is a prime example of onomatepeia. That is, they're named after the sound they make. Its striking, monosyllabic social call is really characteristic once learned and uttered when the bird is perched - transliterated as 'pink' or 'spink.' In fact the second of these is still used as another name for the bird in parts of Northern England. The word 'Finch' in fact derives from the old English, 'finc' and though the call has been somewhat lost in the English translation, it's far more apparent in Dutch (vink), German (fink) and Scandinavian (finke). As with many bird calls, it can serve a variety of purposes, including - a bird separated from its flock or mate, a bird in immediate danger, a bird wishing to rally other Chaffinches to mob an intruder and even a territorial bird behaving aggressively towards another Chaffinch. Chaffinch vocabulary is complex and addition to its song, is thought to have around nine different calls. Along with the Great Tit, Chaffinch may be the other species most commonly associated with 'unidentifiable' woodland calls.
Listen to this call below -
Ultimately though it's the song that provides the Chaffinch with its cheery disposition. It's a simple, bright and loud, two or three note-rattling verse that's consistent in its delivery. It tends to begin with a few rapid sharp notes, progressively decreasing into a similar set of notes at a lower tone, prior to ending with a lovely flourish known as a cadence. If the winter is mild this song can sometimes be heard early in the year, though it seems the Chaffinch often needs a bit of practice before hitting the right notes! In their prime the birds repeat this phrase endlessly, up to six times a minute and three thousand times a day. Most famously the song has been likened to the run-up of a cricketer to the wicket. Imagine the initial trill as the running footsteps and the cadence as the bowling action. Chaffinches are also well known for a propensity for regional variation - the song alters across both counties and countries, though typically just the structure of the final cadence. This fact is even demonstrated in writings as far back as the 17th century. In days gone by birds from Essex were known as 'chuckwados' and birds from Kent as 'kiss-me-dears.'
Listen to the song in this video -
The Chaffinch is also known for having a so-called 'rain-song.' It has been considered to predict impending rain, though you may not want to use it as an alternative to the weather forecast. It's certainly not the most melodic part of their repertoire and is typically heard within the breeding season, though occasionally as an alarm call. As with the song this call displays a wide variety of regional dialects, particularly between the Northern and Southern extent of its breeding distribution in Europe.
Listen to this call below -