Week 1 – Robin to Chaffinch

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

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The robin’s song consists of silvery, liquid flutings and ripplings, with (crucially) pauses in between. I tried to transcribe it using words once. I failed.

Listen out for the pauses, usually no more than a few seconds between each phrase. And try to lodge the sound of the voice, its timbre and register, in your head – each phrase varies slightly. Sometimes it’s a thin ribbon, sometimes it bubbles out and away, almost out of control.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Robins can often be heard making this nervous ‘tik-tik’ call.

(recording: Jorge Leitão)

You can find more robin sounds here.

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

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The blackbird’s on-off pattern isn’t dissimilar to the robin’s, but the timbre is different. Robin: thin and piping; blackbird: rich and mellow, as if it has a deeper throat. It’s also generally lower in pitch than the robin, and there are a few squeaks and squawks thrown in, while the robin’s variations are more rippling and wispy. Both birds are great improvisers – the John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis of the bird world.

Dusk is a brilliant time to listen out for blackbirds. They’ll carry on for ages, singing their hearts out from the top of a tree. With any luck you’ll hear several giving it large at the same time.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

The blackbird’s squawky scrabble will be familiar to anyone who’s ever disturbed one and watched them fly away in a panic.

(recording: brickegickel)

You can find more blackbird sounds here.

Great Tit (Parus major)

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There’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t know what it is, it’s probably a great tit.’ Once you get it down, you’ll realise how much of what you hear is down to them.

The basic song is a simple two-note motif of a proclamatory nature, but they’re not all identical. The old-school way of remembering the great tit’s song is to imagine a child at the back of the class trying to attract attention: ‘Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!’

Personally, I prefer either ‘tiny foot pump’ (thanks to Richard Smyth for that) or ‘squeaky wheel’. It’s also important to remember that they have a lot of variations on that very basic theme. If the robin and the blackbird can be compared to John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis, the great tit is the Status Quo of garden birds: purveyors of classic recognisable songs that have you nodding in recognition before you realise you’d like them to learn a couple more chords.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

I could fill this page with all the noises made by great tits. I’ll spare you that and give you just the one, featuring two birds.

(recording: Elias A. Ryberg)

If great tit noises are your thing, knock yourself out on this page.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

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The wren is a tidgy little bird, but its song is much louder than it has any right to be. I call it the Tiny Shouter.

It sounds something like this: tsib-a-tsab-a-tsoo-diddy-dabble-iddy-wodda-tsipp-a-brrrrr-tsip-tsip-tsip-tsip-tsip-tsip-tsip—tjop-tsrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—-ts’tjupp-tjupp-tjupp-tjupp

Listen out for the key elements: – volume – assorted jumble of tsib-a-tsabs and dibble-woddles (of varying length) – the tsip-tsip-tsip thing, followed by: the machine-gun trill and the repeated tjupp-tjupp-tjupps after the trill.

The combination and order of the various elements vary according to whim, but it’s the machine-gun bit that is constant. 99 times out of 100 you’ll hear the machine-gun trill, and it always comes at or near the end.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

The wren also makes this rattling tchrrrrr sound when it’s feeling nervous, maybe because of an important job interview.

(recording: Ireneusz Oleksik)

Wren sounds! We got wren sounds!

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

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The dunnock’s appearance is a little bit scrabbly and indeterminate, and you might say the same for its song. Short bursts of scibble-abble-ibble-scubble-diddly, followed by a longer silence.

We have to be honest: neither the bird nor the song is going to win beauty contests against some of the flashy look-at-me show-offs out there. All the more reason to root for the little scrabbler, in my opinion.

You might already know that this song is the prelude to a surprisingly lurid sex life. You can read about that here.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

The dunnock’s call is a single high-pitched note, fairly regularly spaced.

(recording: Antonio Xeira)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) & Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

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Song thrush

Two similar-looking birds with superficially similar songs.

Song thrush:

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)
Mistle Thrush 81 (Michael Finn)
Mistle thrush (photo: Michael Finn)

Mistle thrush:

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Listen out for these differences:

– The voice of the song thrush is more strident.

– In general, the song thrush uses shorter phrases, and repeats them, usually ‘note for note’.

– The song thrush sounds more certain of what it’s doing, while the mistle thrush sometimes feels as if it’s forgotten the next line.

– To my ears, the voice of the song thrush sounds more ‘up-front’, bolder, while the mistle thrush has a more wistful quality.

In fact, the mistle thrush’s song is more often compared to that of the blackbird, so to confuse yourself even more, have another listen to that:

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

All the thrushes make a variety of rattly alarm calls. I particularly like the mistle thrush’s, simply because it reminds me of the sound of the teleprinter from Grandstand in the 1970s.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

The varied repertoire of the song thrush can be found here.

And the mistle thrush here.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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People over the years have come up with some very inventive mnemonics for birdsong. As a cricket fan I’m fond of this one. They say that the chaffinch’s song is like a bowler coming to the crease and releasing the ball. Have a listen and decide for yourself (with apologies to listeners from non-cricketing countries).

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

It’s that descending acceleration that does it, plus of course the final flourish as the ball is delivered in a flurry of arms and legs.

The chaffinch has an annoying variety of calls. Here’s one, disturbingly similar to one of the many calls of the great tit.

(recording: brickegickel)

This recording features two calls: the whistling ‘rain call’ and a froggy brrr.

(recording: Jens Kirkeby)

For the full panoply of the chaffinch’s œuvre, go here.

Ready to move on? Week 2 is here.

The Twitter Birdsong Project is a free resource. However, if you enjoy it and would like to support it, you can buy me a coffee.

The recordings on this page were made by various people, and are used here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. These and many more can be found at the excellent resource xeno-canto.org

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