The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //myweb.tiscali.co.uk/njpphotography/

A bird sound biography

Like all good anthropologists, I’d like to begin this blog with a bit of biographical context. Since the Listening to Birds project is all about the role that bird sounds play in people’s lives, it seems prudent to start by describing my own experiences.

I’ve been interested in birds for most of my life and began birding, in a fairly concerted fashion, at the age of six. Like many beginners, I learnt to recognise most birds visually long before I learnt their vocalisations. After I’d been birding a year or two, I recall the leader of the local Young Ornithologist’s Club (YOC) group asking the members to write down how many species of bird they knew by sound. I’ve no idea how many I came up with, but I remember finding it rather difficult to do, even though by that stage I knew lots of birds by sight.

My earliest memories of bird sounds were of easy to recognise species: the song of the Cuckoo, the thrum of a Mute Swan’s wings beating, a mewling Buzzard on holidays to Devon and the electric ‘peewit’ of Lapwings. It took me longer to learn the more complex songs of even the most familiar of songbirds but a few were relatively easy to pick up. On my walk home from school across an area of rough grassland I used to hear Skylarks singing high up above and would strain my neck to catch sight of them. The Skylark was the emblem of my school, which was in the new town part of Northampton. We were told that when the new housing was built on farmland in the early 1970s the Skylarks disappeared from most areas and so it came to represent the great, but rather ambivalent, change that had taken place in the landscape. There were still some around when I was a kid, usually in areas set aside for building, but these days they’ve disappeared as a breeding bird and I’d have to travel further a field to hear their song ascending above me.

It wasn’t until my teens that I started to pay more attention to the sounds I was hearing. A pivotal moment came in October half-term, perhaps in the mid-1980s when I decided to have a look for two birds that I very rarely seemed to see: Siskin and Redpoll. I suspected that both of these small finches were reasonably common around where I lived. Other people seemed to notice them quite regularly but I didn’t. It seemed that knowing their calls was very helpful in locating and identifying them – particularly with birds flying overhead, which could be difficult to identify visually. So I set off to look around the extensive areas of trees that had been planted when the new town was built. Many of which were alders and Redpolls and Siskins both feed on alder mast during the autumn and winter. I hoped that by checking areas where the trees grew I would find the birds. The results were almost instantly successful and that week I saw both species almost daily and sometimes in large numbers. Some were feeding in the trees but there were more bounding overhead in tight flocks, and the only thing giving away their identity were their now very distinctive calls: the ringing ‘tsu’ of the Siskins and the rhythmic, buzzing ‘chi-chi’ of the Redpolls. What I realised from this experience was that learning bird sounds would help me to see and identify more birds, and as a birder who wanted to do just that, it was a lesson well-heeded.

A great leap forward both in my skill at recognising bird sounds and in my sensitivity to them came when I went to work in my late teens at a nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen in the Norfolk Broads. Now it became my job to be able to identify different birds and to recognise different types of call because I needed to do this to help with monitoring bird populations on the reserve. Along with many of the other trainees who worked there at the time, I was very aware of my inability to recognise the songs of some quite familiar birds. What was interesting was that in some cases I had never even heard the species sing. A good example was Treecreeper, a woodland bird I was very accustomed to seeing. I also knew the dry wispy call note but had never heard one sing. I listened to recordings and heard a sound that was totally unfamiliar, a sort of thin but jaunty twitter. Perhaps they don’t sing very often, I wondered, but as I began to survey the birds on the reserve during the spring I heard them all over the place. It wasn’t so much that I’d never heard Treecreepers singing before but that I hadn’t noticed hearing them. Hearing, it became apparent to me then, wasn’t so much a passive reception of sound by the ears but an active process that involved attending to aspects of the world around me. Much of what I heard was what I listened for.

During my time at Strumpshaw, I did lots of survey work in the woods and marshes and this meant that many of the birds stayed out of sight but not out of earshot. The sounds of those places were remarkable: the geese flying out of their roost to graze the marshes at dawn, the Tawny Owls hooting and screeching, the strange squeak and gurgle of a Woodcock on its ‘roding’ display flight, the shotgun burst of a Cetti’s Warbler, the sky filling with noisy Rooks and Jackdaws on their way to roost, the woodland birds finding their voice after a long winter and, above all, the incredible sound of a reed bed full of warblers on an early morning in May.

After a few months learning, I started to teach other staff how to identify bird sounds for doing survey work and was impressed at how quickly most people seemed to pick it up. I’d never really been taught bird identification myself. No one had ever taken me aside and helped me to learn in a formal and concerted way. I had always just ‘picked things up’ as and when I needed, sometimes following the example of others or getting pointers from them but never anything more than that. But, eventually, I’d learnt how to listen and ever since then I’ve made a point of paying more attention to bird sounds. When I travel abroad I still struggle to learn sounds as quickly as I can learn to recognise unfamiliar birds by sight. Perhaps this is because the sort of preparation I do is mostly based on looking through the pages of a field guide. But I gradually come to recognise plenty of sounds and can still remember a few of them: the shrill cries of Killdeer in America, the sewing machine hum of River Warblers in Poland, the thin wheeze of Red-throated Pipits in Turkey, the alarm clock call of a Crested Barbet in South Africa and the ‘dropping bomb’ sound of a Sharpbill in Brazil.

So this is a brief summary of my own experiences, but they raise many of the questions that will be under scrutiny during the Listening to Birds project. Why do we find bird sounds so difficult to learn and remember? What can make it easier to learn them? Why are some sounds easier to remember than others? How do we come to notice bird sounds in the first place? How do certain sounds come to evoke time, place and season? I’ll be exploring these and other questions through the research I’ll be doing over the next few years and will be posting my thoughts as I go along. Your comments and contributions are most welcome.

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