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The magnificent music of the bird orchestra

Learning to distinguish the songs of different birds has been educational and a great deal of fun

I heard a wren sing. I was walking the dog in the early morning and I heard it. First a sweet song from a bush, then a machine gun noise, and I knew it was a wren. That was a sacred bush to me for a while, a wren temple.

Over the years, I’ve watched birds in and around the bird feeders in my garden. I use a telescope so each bird is seen
in magnificent detail. Scruffy blue tits and glamorous great tits; greenfinches; chaffinches and beautiful goldfinches.
The robin keeps an eye on them all.

This year, in the long, hard weeks of January and February, I decided to learn birdsong. I found some fun videos online by Lucy Lapwing, Maurice Baker, Ben Porter, and many more. Each day before breakfast, Dobby and I went round the garden and up the road a short distance. He hunted in the fields and hedgerows, I listened.

Mostly, I was confused. I couldn’t tell the difference between blackbird, robin, and thrush. I mixed up wren and chaffinch, magpie and missel thrush, great tit and chiffchaff. How could I break into that tapestry of sound? How to pick out one instrument from the bird orchestra?

The wren in the sacred bush was a breakthrough moment. I’ve rarely seen a wren in the garden. Up to this year, I didn’t know they could sing. Slowly, I heard more and more wrens, until I realised they’re everywhere and they’re
shouting. They are SO loud.

Next, I heard a song thrush calling from a neighbouring garden, repeating phrases two and three times. Another joined in, and a third. For a few weeks, I sat on a bench every day, at the centre of a triangle of song thrushes. I think I started at a good time of year, when not too many birds were singing. Our morning walk became a delight, listening for new voices.

A bird sang from a tree at the edge of a field, one day, and the next day, and the day after. I realised it was the same bird, in the same tree, and it was singing “teacher, teacher” and that’s how I heard a great tit for the first time. I learned a lot from that little bird. The great tit has dozens of variations and he knew them all. It’s funny; when I watched birds on the feeders, I really didn’t think about where they went afterwards. Now I know where one of them lives.

I thought about the other birds I see in my garden and listened for their songs and calls. Greenfinches and goldfinches make a lot of strange noises. The blue tit has a short highpitched song, but I didn’t hear it too often. In contrast, the
chaffinch was an easy conquest. As spring rolled on, I got to the point of irritation with the endless, repetitive chaffinches.

The sun rose earlier each day, and so did the birds, but Dobby and I did not. The orchestra was in full swing now,
individual instruments harder to pick out.

With the warmer weather, house martins returned to the nest above my bedroom window, chirping as they swoop overhead. Cooing started, but was it pigeon or dove? Lucy Lapwing has a neat trick: Listen to the syllables and the emphasis. The wood pigeon shouts, “Wood PIG-eon, PIGEON,” while the collared dove is more restrained, “CollARED dove.” It works.

Mostly, I learned a song first, listened for it after. Then one day I heard a rising scale of notes followed by a slide down again. Even though I’d never heard it before, I knew it was “a little bit of bread and no cheese” and that’s the song of the yellowhammer. From the field behind my house came a short meandering melody that makes me think of summer. I was so surprised to find it’s the song of the dunnock.

And a beautiful descending scale was a willow warbler. Now in autumn, the fields and hedgerows are quiet again. A melancholy voice comes from a tree nearby, as I walk with Dobby. I whistle a little reply. Another plaintive voice answers from a bush up ahead, then another further up the road. It’s the robins. In winter and spring, they’re such cheeky little chappies, but in autumn they sing quietly, as if to say, “I’m still here.”

Overhead, straggles of geese fly between lake and field, 30 or 40 at a time, calling: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” Starlings line up on the wires, discussing their next murmuration, then a sudden flurry of wings and they’re gone.


It’s been such fun, and yet I’ve only just begun.

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