our songbirds

Our Songbirds is a lovely illustrated guide by artist and ornithologist Matt Sewell, introducing a songbird for each week of the year. Meet ‘the peewit who sings the blues’ and the bittern who ‘fills his neck like a tweed pair of bellows’.

Don’t play birdsong near birds, makes them vulnerable to predators. Never face indoor foliage to outdoor windows to help stop birds flying into windows (use blinds/screens and turn out unnecessary lights). Also read books to help discover the joys of birdwatching.

If you think about it, the way that birds sing is quite magical. They do this due to a special organ called a syrinx (similar to our larynx, but with two tubes like an upside-down Y where air flows over vibrating tissue to generate sounds). Not all birds sing (storks for instance, kind of make a mild clatter!). Over half of the world’s 10,000 species of birds are songbirds (the family includes sparrows, thrushes and warblers), and other birds still make beautiful music naturally. Rather than songbirds that kind of ‘learn songs’ from their parents as chicks. Singing takes a lot of energy! That’s why it’s important to protect wild habitats, so birds have plenty of places to roost and sleep, and lots of wild food to eat. Find a list of over 200 songs at British birdsongs.

Like humans, birds have accents when they sing! Some are learned from parents, others may sing differently due to being isolated from other birds, develop their own sounds! What’s important is that we take time to slow down and appreciate beautiful birdsong. Who would not rather wake up and listen to a dawn chorus, than switching on rolling news or reading social media feeds?

Never play birdsong or try to imitate songs near birds, as it can throw them off their game, and attract predators. Also don’t encourage birds into gardens if you live with or near cats (keep feline friends inside at dawn and dusk, when birds are likely feeding).

Take time to listen to songs brought to you by:

  • Blackbirds – these early risers have short low-pitched songs like flutes. They don’t repeat verses, so each song is different!
  • Song thrushes are responsible for the early-morning dawn chorus, with loud ‘verses’ they repeat several times.  Mistle thrush songs are similar, but they’re a bit forgetful so tend to end songs quickly, when they trail off and can’t remember the ending!
  • Robins (they don’t live that long – your ‘annual returning robin’ is likely the son or grandson of the one you saw last year) also like to sing early mornings. Their call has ‘rippling’ notes and whistles, and they sing all year (unlike most birds). Similar dunnocks (small and grey) have lovely high-pitched melodies, also in verses.
  • Warblers sing in long verses of different notes, and again are similar to someone playing a flute. Blackcaps (migrant warblers) also have clear flute-like notes. Another ‘dawn chorus’ bird is chiffchaff, who likes to add extra notes when he feels like it!
  • You’ll also find lovely songs by blue tits, great tits and coal tits. And you’ll also enjoy listening to chaffinches and greenfinches. Despite their tiny size, wrens give out high-pitched whistles.

reasons behind why birds sing

Although it’s nice to imagine that birds are singing to us (perhaps they are?!) it’s mostly for one reason only; to attract a mate. The Northern Cardinal bird can play more notes than on a piano, in just one-tength of a second! Wood thrushes can sing falling and rising notes at the same time, something no human could ever do!

Nature writer Stephen Moss writes that the first song thrush of spring is ‘comforting – like the bird is talking to you’. But he says birdsong is quite simple: the males are singing ‘keep out’ to other males and females are singing ‘come in’ if she’s interested. Males sometimes fly thousands of miles from Africa, and then on arrival, start singing (sometimes for hours) to find a mate. Most songbirds don’t live long, so if they don’t find a mate, they may never get the chance to breed.

protecting birds who sing (or screech!)

in the woods at night Salvina Felice

Salvina Felice

Modern life is playing havoc with songbirds. Light pollution from always-on lampposts and 24-hour lit car parks is confusing some birds to now wake up at midnight to start singing, as they think it’s dawn. This in turn affects their feeding, breeding and sleeping habits. So always switch lights off when not in use (close curtains and use task lights if you need light at night) to help stop birds flying into windows.

Ask your council to install wildlife-friendly lighting (if your council uses blue-toned street lights, they have not done their homework, as lights should have orange hues, as the longer wavelength makes it less visible so less likely to negatively affect birds). Report broken street lights at Fix My Street (these complaints are sent publicly to councils).

Bird & Wild Coffee uses profits to help protect songbirds. It sells shade-grown coffee (farmers can grow other crops at the same time, for extra income). Avoid caffeine for pregnancy/nursing and affected medical conditions – the company sells natural de-caff coffee. Just bin coffee grounds (and tea leaves), as caffeine could harm compost creatures. 

more books on birdsong

Birdsong in a Time of Silence is the story of how the pandemic lockdown awakened people’s ears to the sounds of birds around us. This lyrical uplifting reflection portrays blackbirds (early spring singers) and other birds, and covers the science of how birds sing.

A Year of Birdsong is by Dominic Couzens who listens to birds around the world, each week of the year. All the stories are accompanied by illustrations from award-winning artist Madeleine Floyd and a QR code so you can listen to the songs, while you read.

The Nightingale is by Sam Lee, whose studies of both music and song means he’s an expert at knowing how birdsong has inspired human creativity. This guide includes a nod to Persian poetry, and the story of the song inspired by the bird who sang in Berkeley Square!

Wild Air: In Search of Birdsong is a book about eight birds and their songs, all living in different habitats. Inspired by memories of his granny who listened to birdsong (and what she would relay to her father – the naturalist Seton Gordon), the author writes of a nightjar’s strange churring song on a heath in southern England, to a lapwing displaying over the machair in the Outer Hebrides.

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