Five tips for learning bird song

, 12 February 2013

Author Jess Price

robin / Sophie May Lewis
robin / Sophie May Lewis

Spring is certainly on its way and with it, a cacophony of bird song coming from gardens, parks and woodlands. Unfortunately my bird song identification skills are not as good as I would like, so Iíve decided that this year I am really going to work on it. The following are some tips and tricks that Iíve come up with to help me. Why not try some of these yourselves?

1. Get an early start

In Sussex singing birds really hit their peak in late April and early May. Walking through woodland at dawn can be a fabulous experience, but for those of us trying to identify birds it can be pretty overwhelming. In February a much smaller number of species are singing so by starting to learn songs now you can work you way up to the full dawn chorus in a few months time.

2. Take baby steps

Take the time to learn just a couple of species really well before adding anymore. For most people the easiest birds to start with are those that a regularly heard singing in gardens and parks such as robin, blackbird, wren and dunnock. Once you can confidently identify these, try adding in some others.

3. Visualise

It will really help you to remember a song if you associate it with something you can visualise in your mind. For example when I hear the descending song of a chaffinch I always see a cricketer running up to the crease and bowling a ball with a flourish. This particular association may not work for everyone, so when listening to a song spend time thinking about what will work for you.

4. Embrace technology

There is now a huge range of bird song phone apps, CDs and websites available to help you. Before you go out into the garden, spend 10 minutes listening to two or three species that you think you might hear. This will be even more effective if you can refer to the description of the song and picture of the bird in your bird guide at the same time. You might even like to annotate this with little notes of what the song reminds you of.

But remember that listing to a recording is very different to hearing a bird outside with leaves rustling, dogs barking and other birds singing. So make sure you spend lots of time outside just sitting and focusing on what you can hear.

5. Spend time with an expert

I can be very hard to feel confident with your identification skills when there is no way to check if you are correct. This is when walking around with an expert can be a huge help. I am very luck to work at Woods Mill where birders seem to grow on trees, but you might like to join a local birding group or attend one of the Sussex Wildlife Trustís fantastic bird courses. There are still places available on both Birdsong for Beginners


dunnock / Neil Fletcher dunnock / Neil Fletcher

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  • Visualisation/technology: look at the sonograms on BTO Bird facts or
    Rather than resort to apps etc, seek out the bird that’s singing. That way you get all kinds of extra information like the habitat and height it’s coming from.
    What’s more, you have to listen attentively and perhaps for a prolonged period before tracking down the bird itself but the learning is more firmly embedded.
    (That’s assuming you do find the bird. If not, it’s back to the CD etc or maybe back to the same place next day. I don’t know how long it took me to track down my first singing Wryneck (this was a long time ago…) but recall very very clearly the sensation of finally setting eyes on it!)

    13 Feb 2013 18:12:02