Although we have a couple of months to wait before birdsong peaks in the UK, you may have noticed an increase in birdsong over the past few weeks whilst on the golf course, in your garden or on a local walk. The lengthening days trigger breeding mode in male songbirds, which is why they start singing towards the end of February. To the human ear, birdsong can sound calming, beautiful and uplifting but to birds of the same species there is a lot more to this vocalisation than just a song. Male birds sing for two reasons: to guard their territory against competing males of the same species or to attract females into their territory to mate with.
If nearby males perceive the song of another male to be weak, they may try to invade the territory and compete for it. Some species will adopt an aggressive posture or try and chase the intruding male away. Blackbirds (Turdus merula ) and Robins (Erithacus rubecula) are two of our UK species that are known to fight to the death over a territory!
So now you know why male birds sing more at this time of year and the consequences of not having a strong-sounding song, let’s look at how to identify the species of birds we are hearing at the moment. Blackbirds sing different sounding sequences each time they sing, but they often start off sounding flute-like and then end with a few shorter ‘chucks’ or squeaks. What you need to listen out for is the melancholy tone, some say it sounds like a man whistling a tune! Similarly, Robins sing a slightly different song each time, but their song is faster and higher in pitch than that of the Blackbird. Robins are actually territorial all year round which is why you can hear them singing throughout the year.
A good tip for learning birdsong is by watching a bird sing and thinking of what it sounds like. For example, many people, including Bill Oddy, say that a Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) sounds like it is saying ‘my toe is bleeding’ very slowly, with the emphasis on the ‘toe’, the ‘is’ and the ‘ing’. This technique also works for the song that Great Tits (Parus major) often sing at this time of year. Rather than remembering the song itself it is easier to remember what this song sounds like. Some say it sounds like a bicycle pump or as if it is saying ‘teach-er, teach-er, teach-er’.
Some bird songs don’t take long to recognise by ear at all, and no rhymes or techniques are needed to remember their song as they literally sing their name. This is the case with Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita), which mainly migrate here for the breeding season and leave in September, however an increasing number are overwintering here in the UK. They are by far the most easily identifiable warbler due to their characteristic song. Chiffchaffs start to sing anytime now so keep a listen out for that distinctive ‘chiff-chaff’ song on repeat. I always know spring is pretty much here when I hear my first Chiffchaff of the year! Another species that repeats phrases is the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), which usually repeats a phrase 3 or 4 times before moving onto another phrase and repeating that. I hear these thrushes most often at dusk, and they often seem to be the last birds singing at night.
For those with particularly good hearing, you may be able to hear the high-pitched song of the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), especially when you are in coniferous woodland. Their song is meant to sound like a squeaky wheel turning round. It sounds like the wheel is turning quite quickly and then there are few sudden sharp notes at the end as if the song has been cut short. They always sing this same song, so once you have heard it once, you will easily be able to identify this species from its song again. Goldcrests are the smallest bird in the UK, closely followed by their relative, the much more rare Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla).
Another small bird that is singing to stake its territory at this time of year and has an extremely powerful song for its size, is the Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). Like the Goldcrest, the Wren’s song is the same every time. It pretty much always sings the same phrases in the same order. The fast trill part of their song stands out to many people as it sounds like a mini machine gun! Wrens are the most common breeding bird in the UK, so you are very likely to see or hear one, especially at this time of year.
Dunnocks (Prunella modularis), also known as Hedge Sparrows, are another common bird that are announcing their presence at the moment, especially on the tops of hedgerows. The rest of the year they tend to be less obvious, nervously hopping along the ground and staying fairly well camouflaged. I always think the Dunnock sounds like it suddenly remembers it has an announcement to make in a limited time, so it must rush! Its song can be described as fast and long, with no pauses and with the same pace throughout.
Finally, let’s talk about the Greenfinch (Chloris chloris), and its…. song (if you can call it that!). There is no other bird that sounds quite like a Greenfinch, with its long, ‘greeeeee’ sound. In fact, it sounds quite like someone saying ‘greeeeeen’, with way too much saliva in their mouth (lovely)! I bet everyone who has read that, is trying it now!
It is important to have a variety of habitats on your golf course, in order to support a rich diversity of bird species and other wildlife. Please remember that from March to the end of August it is the main breeding season for nesting birds so hedge trimming or any other destructive garden maintenance should be avoided during this period. Always make sure you abide by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Did you know?
Last year the R&A agreed on a new three year partnership with the RSPB to work together on managing habitats and conserving wildlife on UK golf courses. You can find out more about this partnership here: https://www.randa.org/News/2020/01/RandA-to-support-RSPB
You can find recordings of each bird song on the RSPB website too, they also have this handy guide that has descriptions and song recordings of most of the species discussed here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-songs/what-bird-is-that/
We’d love to hear about which birds you’ve been hearing in your golf course, garden or local green space!