Week 4 – Blackcap to Hooded crow

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) &

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

Welcome to Birdsong Hell.

I shouldn’t really be throwing these birds at you. Not without giving you some sort of protection. It’s not fair. They’re commonly acknowledged as two of the most difficult songs to tell apart. But the fact is that these birds turn up every year in March and April with the express intention of confusing us, so we might as well have a listen so that when they do arrive we can cock an ear and say ’nope. no idea.’

Here’s a blackcap.

Male blackcap
(recording: Timo Tschentscher)

And here’s a garden warbler.

Garden warbler
(recording: Timo Tschentscher)

Easy, huh?

Honestly, it’s as if they do it deliberately. I freely admit that at this stage I begin to feel out of my depth, so I defer to people wiser and more experienced.

According to this video from the British Trust for Ornithology, the blackcap’s song is rich, bubbly and flutey, with clear and considered phrases, whereas the garden warbler’s is more likely to include harsh scratchy notes.

Anyway, if you hear song like that in the summer (blackcaps from the end of March, garden warblers from mid-April – approximately), you might not be able to identify which one’s which, but at least you can say you’ve tried.

For those in a masochistic mood, there are more blackcap sounds here, and more garden warbler sounds here.

Coot (Fulica atra) & Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

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After the blackcap and garden warbler above, you need some respite, so here’s something a bit simpler.

If you live in a town or a city with a local pond, or near a lake or a river or harbour, or if you ever go to a nature reserve, you’re likely to encounter these two birds at some point.

They hang out in the same kind of places, and often cause confusion. I’d love to give you an easy mnemonic to remember which is which – the best I can come up with is to remember the expression ‘bald as a coot’ to remind you of the bare whiteness of the coot’s forehead. Or ‘the moorHEN’s HEAD is RED’. Feeble, I know.

Anyway, their calls. This is one of the coot’s most often heard noises: a sharp, percussive call.

(recording: Tero Linjama)

And here’s the moorhen’s more chirrupy call, interspersed with some quiet ‘pik-pik-pik’s.

(recording: Patrik Åberg)

It is, inevitably, not quite as simple as that, because both birds make a fairly wide variety of chipping and pocking noises, but you’re busy people and it’s all confusing enough anyway, so that’ll do for now.

If coot sounds are your thing, look no further.

Moor morehens here.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Version 5

And now to the sound of childhood summers. Well, mine anyway.

Whenever I stepped off the 280 bus to walk the half mile home, there was a skylark singing in the field by the lane, and I would stop and scour the skies to see if I could find the source of its rolling, skirling, chirruping song.

The picture above won’t help you identify it, but I took it and I rather like it. Sorry about that.

The thing about the skylark’s song is that it’s incessant. Up and up and up the bird goes, singing all the way, a liquid mixture of chirps and twiddles and whistles. Then it parachutes down, still singing, and hides itself on the ground.

(recording: Alex Thomas)

That, by the way is a short example. They can do it for ages, the length and power of the song and the height of their flight indicating how sturdy their genes are and advertising their suitability as a mate. Citius, Altius, Fortius and all that.

You’re unlikely to see or hear a skylark if you live in the city, but head out to farmland or heaths or meadows and allow your heart to be lifted by this wonderful, evocative song.

Listening to skylark song is a fine way to spend some time. There’s 19 hours of it here.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

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It’s time for us to catch up with corvids.

Members of the crow family are widespread and abundant in the UK, so it’s frankly shocking I haven’t dealt with a single one yet. Perhaps it’s because their sounds might be perceived as uninteresting, which is a) a feeble excuse and b) WRONG. Anyway, let’s make amends for that heinous omission.

The jackdaw’s call, often issued in flight, is a rather endearing, comparatively high-pitched ‘chack’ – one of the possible derivations of the ‘jack’ bit of its name.

(recording: Thomas Lüthi)

When you encounter a group of jackdaws (again, often when they take off or are in flight), their calls (as observed by Simon Barnes and stolen by me – sorry, Simon) spread through the flock like the sound of snooker balls at the break.

(recording: Joost van Bruggen)

Fill yourself to the brim with jackdaw emissions.

Magpie (Pica pica)

Version 2

Today’s bird divides opinion – some love the subtle green/purple tinges that give variation to its otherwise monochrome plumage, others hate it for its predatory instincts and general rowdiness.

Probably the commonest sound you’ll hear a magpie make is the rattly alarm call at the beginning of this recording. But they make a variety of other squawks and clicks and whistles as well.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Here’s a magpie doing a squeaky song of sorts.

(recording: Peter Boesman)

And here’s a magpie chuntering away to itself with a variety of noises, including one that sounds rather like the jackdaw’s cha-chack on first hearing.

(recording: Elias A. Ryberg)

I learned as a child that when you see a magpie you need to say ‘Hello Mr Magpie, how’s your lady wife?’ and spit three times. Variations on that include saying ‘Good morning’ and whistling three times (rather more genteel than the spitting, I admit), ‘Good morning Captain!’, or even ‘Good morning m’Lord!’ – a salute of some kind is usually included too.

Take all the time you want to listen to magpies.

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

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The jay is the most colourful of the British corvids. Check out its peachy plumage. Check out its flashing turquoise wing feathers. Check out its deranged stare.

Bloomin’ amazing birds, jays. Their ability to bury innumerable acorns and remember the location of every one is bewildering to someone like me, who struggles to find a pair of glasses when they’re on his head. But they’re vocally fascinating, too.

This is probably the most familiar jay sound, a raw shriek, echoing through a wood near you right now, I wouldn’t wonder. I’m hoping the provenance of the (presumably human-generated) sounds from about 25s will remain forever a mystery.

(recording: Vincent Pourchaire)

As well as those contact/alarm calls, the jay also has a quieter and less demonstrative song – a hoarse croak with an upward ‘chuck’ at the end.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Even if you’re familiar with those sounds, it might surprise you to learn (or it might not – I’m not a mindreader) that jays are also fantastic mimics. Have a listen to this. (Birds imitated include kestrel, greenshank, linnet, grey partridge, chiffchaff, reed warbler, heron, greenfinch, goldfinch…)

(recording: Stanislas Wroza)

Sate yourself with the sounds of the jay.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus), Carrion crow (Corvus corone) & Hooded crow (Corvus cornix)

Next in the corvid line-up come two birds which are often confused. The appearances of the two birds are pretty similar, but look at the stouter, slightly curved shape of the carrion crow’s bill and the bare grey patch at the base of the rook’s.

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Carrion crow
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Also (and this is a generalisation), rooks mostly stick to agricultural areas (tall trees are their main requirement), whereas carrion crows are more adaptable to varied habitats and are common in cities. But enough of that. We’re not here to identify these birds by sight – it’s their noises we’re interested in. And again, you could easily be lulled into describing the sounds of both with a catch-all ‘GRAAARRK’.

Here’s the carrion crow.

(recording: Tony Whitehead)

And here’s the rook.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Pretty similar, huh. To my ears the rook’s call is harsher, rougher, growlier, – slightly more looking for a fight. And the carrion crow also has sounds like this one, without any throatiness.

(recording: brickegickel)

If you live in Ireland or parts of Scotland (or indeed Scandinavia, Italy and eastern Europe), just so you don’t feel left out, here’s your equivalent of the carrion crow, its very close cousin the hooded crow.

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Hooded crow

The hooded crow’s call is very similar to the carrion crow’s.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Addicts of croaky sounds can get their fill at these places: carrion crow, rook, hooded crow.

Ready for more? Week 5 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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