Bird Song? What can it tell us?

And why start learning now?
by Woodland Ways (Bushcraft Courses)

Many years ago I wanted to try and learn the different calls of birds and try to figure out what they meant. My first attempt was a pretty poor affair. It’s like the old saying, if you go tracking alone your always right! I’d convince myself I’d just heard a robin, and out would pop a wren… there was a great tit, oh no wait… it’s a coal tit. My woes went on and I went back to the drawing board, I then began to understand I could get a lot more information from our little feathered friends. This is a real key skill to develop and one that I focus on very heavily on our tracking bushcraft course.

It seemed to me that the only way I was going to nail the bird song and the behaviours was to start with one or two birds, get them 12 months of the year (if applicable!), and then move on.

I’m still on that journey now, and I hope I never reach the final destination as you learn each and every time you go out. The initial problem is, how do you just pinpoint a couple of birds to listen too initially, well this is the reason for me writing this now, because NOW is the perfect time to start your own journey.

Winter is the perfect time to learn the sounds and calls of wild birds, forget about what the noise means to begin with. Just focus on what is actually making the sound. Quite simply to begin with shut your eyes. Shut your eyes and let your ears do the work.

This is a real key skill to develop and one that I focus on very heavily on our tracking course. We have 5 definite, and one more possible, sense. For tracking you need to use them all.

Once you have pinpointed a sound then look in the direction from where it came and ID the chap making it. For beginners I like the FSC guides for bird ID but as you move on you may want something a little more comprehensive. I don’t say this tongue in cheek as well about “identifying the chap”. You see, you have just been able to identify that there is a bird singing in that direction, and the chances are it is male, congratulations… you are on the journey as to understanding bird noise, you see most song birds it’s the male that do the singing.

Why does bird song matter?

We listen because that bird noise can tell us a lot. Usually bird song will either be about sex, territory (or sex), alarm (or sex), aggression (or sex), contact (or sex), or young begging (as a result of sex). To be frank it all comes back to sex. You hold a territory so that you can have sex, you alarm when others come into that territory to make yourself sound bigger… its your territory, and you want to have sex in it. You get aggressive to keep other males out of your territory, this way you increase your chances of having sex… but once you’ve had your fill… there’s going to be the flitter flutter of tiny wings to feed, and no sex for a while, so your young need to feed up quick, so that they can grow and be strong… and have sex. Generally after all the sex is done with things quieten down a bit, unless something upsets you… and that’s out of the ordinary, and enables us humans to use this information to track.

We can also understand a lot about what may be happening in the woods by understanding some of the short or long flight patterns. Have you ever noticed how pigeons will fly out and accross in an ark and wondered why? Or why the blackbird is sitting right at the top of the tree facing one direction, giving an alarm call but not moving, or maybe it was lower and left off in a flurry of noise but just a gentle rise in its flight… did you know this is telling you that something is coming through at a brisk pace? Now you think of it, it makes sense… what would you do when faced with danger?

So, when we combine what we hear (or don’t hear), with their flight pattern, it enables us to predict what is happening in the woodland when we cannot see it. So with practice we can tell depending on how they call and what direction they fly whether there is another human coming in, another predator bird, or a four legged animal walking through, or running through, or off in the distance… we can tell A LOT from just focusing on bird noise and flight pattern. Most animal tracking courses you will do in the UK focus normally on a group of blokes chasing each other around in the woods and sneaking up on each other. Hey, if that’s your bag then enjoy it, who am I to stop it, and to be fair there are some useful skills to be learnt from this, but on our tracking course we focus on animal behaviours and patterns, this is how you track for real. We’ll have you plotting the direction of movement of mammals using bird noise, we’ll have motion camera’s out for you to ACTUALLY see the animals that have left the tracks that you are interpreting… no other Bushcraft Course provider in the UK goes to this detail (except obviously until now as people always copy what we do…)

So why should I start learning bird noise now?

During the winter in the UK there are less woodland song birds that will be singing their hearts out, but yes, there are some birds that are very hardy, very tuneful, and there all year. In December you should just start to hear the blackbirds picking up their song, as well as the Robin, and the Bullfinch. You may also notice flocks of long tail tits flittering from tree to tree in their family, all emitting a high pitch rapid thweep thweep… (I’m here, are you there, ok I’m going here, now where are you, over there, ok I’m coming too etc). That’s it, now ignore the rest, just focus on the sounds these birds are making to begin with. This provides the perfect opportunity for you to use your ears instead of your eyes to identify and track these birds. On each and every bushcraft course that we run you’ll notice the instructors are constantly turning their heads and narrowing their vision to a particular spot, when you spend as much time in the woods as we do you start to do it instinctively.

The Robin
Picture by Kevan Palmer – Senior Bushcraft Instructor

Let’s have a quick focus on one of the most common birds you will hear outdoors at this time of year, the Robin, a very territorial bird when it comes to feeding and breeding.

During the winter months, the Robin sings a mournful song from perches high in the trees. This warble changes from a wistful sound to a stronger and more passionate melody near Christmas, it’s looking to establish a terrirory and pair up in a while (we’re back to sex again). They are usually a diurnal bird but I have seen them hunting at night around the marina where I live using the lights on the boats which attract insects. But it is their absolute territorial aggression that we can use to our advantage to not just learn their noises, but also to help us track.

I describe the alarm call of the robin as a loud ticking noise, which sounds almost metallic. Imaging the bird sitting in front of a big sheet of metal and the noise bouncing back off it, that’s what it sounds like to me. The chances of you catching them doing it though in front of a sheet of metal is pretty slim, this little fella is incredibly aggressive and he’d pick a fight with his own reflection. So next time you are wondering through the woodland check out what he does. If it is an area that is heavily frequented by people the chances are they will be low to the ground hooking from branch to branch. Watching people move in and out of its territory but also looking for any disturbance of the ground where a tasty morsel may have been kicked up. However in woodlands that are usually private they’ll be up a little higher and a bit more wary… still hooking from perch to perch though. So if you’re dead still and you see the bird hooking low to the ground it’ll indicate to you that there may be ground feeding larger mammals very close by that it is familiar with and less of a threat, I have seen this with badger and deer. However if they are hooking higher up then it could be domestic cat, or stoat or weasel. This little fella doesn’t have a life span of 10-12 years for nothing, they’re clever little birds.

The Great Tit is a more vocal bird than the Robin. The males make a loud “tink” sound when sounding an alarm or when involved in a territorial dispute. One of the most familiar Great Tit calls is the sound of “teacher, teacher,” which the birds use to aggressively claim ownership of a territory… it wants sex.

Like the Great Tit, Blue Tits use their songs mainly to establish and defend their territories, especially in the late winter. Blue Tits like to call to each other to motivate and to inform one another of their locations. These contact calls travel from tree to tree as communication. The birds use an alarm call to warn each other and neighbouring species, such as the Great Tit and the Robin, about predators in the area. Once the warning has been issued, the Blue Tit will often use a scolding call to pester the intruding predator. This bird also uses a series of high-pitched notes that sounds like “zeedling” as a mating call.

The smallest tit, the Coal Tit, emits a high-pitched song similar to the Great Tit. The repetitive “pee-chaw” sound of the Coal Tit increases its pace over time. During its food search, this bird calls “see-see” incessantly.

The pace of the Wren’s call is similar to that of the Coal Tit; both sing restlessly and quickly. The Wren, however, has a trembling sound during its 5 second song before ending in a trill. The sweetly emphatic song varies from bird to bird, but the males sing with their whole bodies. The volume of this small bird is surprising, and it can especially be heard from long distances when it is excited or annoyed. The Wren’s alarm call loudly cries “teck teck teck” when danger comes near. This will be another indicator that there may be something approaching. If, like me, you’ve ever chosen a sit spot position in a wrens territory he’ll let the whole world know your there!

Winter wildlife offers you the unique opportunity to experience these bird noises with fewer distractions from others as the season intensifies. So concentrate on just a few to begin with, the robin, the blackbird, the bullfinch, the long tailed tit… then expand a little further- the great tit, the blue tit, the coal tit etc. Listen and observe their behaviour and you’ll be on to a very rewarding tracking journey that is seldom understood.

Tracking Course | Bushcraft Courses



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