Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Birdsong: understanding the mind of mother nature (and why pigeons love girls called Emma or Gemma).

In this week’s review you can find out tips for improving your mental well-being while taking the bins out, why wood pigeons all love my wife, and how learning birdsong can be a inspiring way to show others that unusual nature is all around us, all the time, wherever we are.

Go to your nearest window now and open it. Or if you’re reading this outside, then pause. Wait. Wait. There! Between the noises of cars, planes and rattling earphones. Again, hear it? Birdsong. Woohoo! Nature’s sex engine is starting to rev... !

So what am I hearing as I type this…? Hmmm…Oh, there! The blurted digital computations of a wren from deep within the bushes. And what was that…? A trickling robin’s song on the top of a conifer. Oh, and there... a few chords of blackbird, like the backing track to a game of cricket in Midsomer.

Knowing a few bird songs can be a great way to inspire others, and inform them that wildlife events –often unusual, sometimes violent- are happening around us all the time as we humans go about our normal business. Picking up on birdsong can be a great foundation for young naturalists.

What's so good about knowing a few bird calls?

Nowadays I use birdsong as a way to get a free pick-me-up from nature (a fleeting “Ohh, green woodpecker.” whilst taking the bins out). It’s a nudge in the ribs from Gaia for when I’m getting too fixated on checking my emails or channel hopping.

Birdsong urges me to look at the real world (as opposed to the Real World).

I didn’t use to be this way about birdsong. I used to be adamant that birds were over-rated, and that it was the weirder stuff (bugs, fossils) that was where it was at. I assumed that birdsong was just, well, birdsong. Ah ha, no. Since opening my ears to birds my faith has been shaken, because listening to birdsong is something you can do anywhere: cities, farms, parks, heathlands, forests, airports, supermarket carparks. And it’s free. It’s like having a Google News Alert sent to your phone. “NATURE ALERT: Behind you, in that tree. Nuthatch.”

The point of birdsong

But birdsong is about more than just getting a quick nature fix. In fact, it’s got nothing to do with us humans at all. Birdsong is biological. Natural selection went for it because it helped birds communicate their genetic wares to other (normally female) members of their own species. If bird species didn’t sing their individual songs, female and male birds would be wasting energy investigating each and every calling bird in a territory. Natural selection abhors the wasteful. No, far better for birds to sing a special song that only members of their own species knows.

And it’s not all about sexual adverts (although it sort of is in a convoluted way). Birdsong is also a way to show off a bird’s territory. Prime real estate may contain a range of things that female birds want for their future chicks: they like male birds that have access to plenty of food, hiding places, and nest sites protected from predators and too much sun. By singing, males are declaring to females that the territory is theirs - that they own such things. But males respond to songs too; some will move on, while some will challenge the resident male for ownership of the spoils. So, as well as being purely an advertisement for female birds, birdsong is also a way for males to show other males that the spoils are theirs. It’s a sort of species-specific twang that says “Bugger off”, but in a way that females find sexy.

So that’s what’s behind birdsong. But you probably know all this. In many ways it’s elementary. It wasn’t for me though. I really wish someone had told me it earlier. I’d love to have learnt some bird calls at primary school, to have understood the point of birdsong, or to have been able to at least appreciate that May was when the dawn chorus was at its peak, and on the slide hereon after. Birdsong, this free bit of audio pick-me-up, might too have helped me during my period of teenage angst (instead I turned to Dawson’s Creek…), and it might have made me a lover of birds at a younger age. This is something I now regret immensely.

It’s powerful stuff, birdsong.

What can you do to inspire others to listen to birdsong?

So what can environmental educators do to help others learn to appreciate birdsong? Well, learn some songs for a start. Thankfully resources exist for this purpose. The RSPB website has a handy ‘call playback’ facility for each and every UK bird. BBC Wildlife Magazine has a lovely article (it’s out now – grab it!) by Mark Cocker, and they point to as a great online resource for birdsong. (The magazine article itself is fantastic, outlining such things as how the musical traditions of long-dead human cultures are still being played back to us through the mimicing abilities of some birds, like the Albert’s lyrebirds. Incredible.)

If it’s CDs of UK bird calls you’re after then I am a big fan of ‘Songs of Garden Birds' which is nice and clear – I listened to this in the car for months. If apps are more your thing then there are plenty available for your iPhone, or via Android Market. Muck about with them whenever you can, and then go and try it out for real. My friends used to test me in the pub, which is fun (in a sort of "is-it-banter-or-bullying?" kind of way).

Another good tip is to make your own mnemonics about bird calls, or mentally describe what each call reminds you of. This is a great way for your brain to make quicker and firmer connections between neurons, so that within months recalling birdsong becomes more effortless, and automatic to you.

With this in mind, to me (but not others I’m sure), blackbird song is like a jolly flute player; robin song is water-like; chaffinch is like a bowler getting ready to throw a bowling ball; willow warbler song is like a sleepy drunk man who is slowly realising no-one’s listening. One year we had a wood pigeon sit on our chimney echoing into our bedroom each morning: “We… all… love… Emma. We… all… love… Emma. We… all… love… Emma.” My wife (Emma) can no longer look one in the eye.

These sound ridiculous, but that’s fine. Bird calls can be personal. These personal stories helped me mentally file away each call correctly in my addled brain, and I can still remember each and every one each spring as a result.

Learn some showpiece calls

If you really want to inspire young naturalists, my advice would be to learn the calls of some showpiece birds at least. These are the ones you’ll pull out of the air and everyone will be amazed. Start by trying to learn the more unusual-looking (but common) birds by their calls. You’ll be amazed how many are about.

Here’s my top five amazing birds that you'll realise are all over the place once you've mastered their song:

1. Green woodpecker - listen out for a loud cackling laugh (called a 'Yaffle'). Green woodpeckers often do this as they fly out of trees and along exposed areas.
2. Long-tailed tit - like the tinkling of tinny broken whistles coming from all sides of you. Long-tailed tits fly (throughout autumn and winter) in noisy small flocks.
3. Greater spotted woodpecker - apart from the drumming of beak on wood in spring, you can often hear the sharp angry "PIK" as greater spotted woodpeckers make their way busily between the branches of trees. Learn it, listen for it. You'll realise these colourful birds are all over the place.
4. Swift - "SCREAAAAACH" "SCREACHHHHHHhhh" - this is one of those calls you hear once, and realise you've been hearing it for years whilst you sat in beer gardens or drank rose in the garden (just me? Ok then). Look overhead when you hear this and you'll see swifts surfing the nothingness above.
5. Goldfinch - these birds look far too colourful to be common but, if you learn the jangly sound of their manic bell-like chirps, you'll realise that they're all over the place. Beautiful, and forever happy-seeming little things.

I never knew such birds lived so close to us.

So there you have it. A guide to getting more from birdsong. Anything I’ve missed? Any other tips? As always, add me your comments and suggestions.

Simon Barnes (in the excellent How to be a bad birdwatcher) has a lovely bit about birdsong where he says something along the lines of: only by learning the instruments of the orchestra, can we understand the mind of the composer. An unbeatable metaphor. On that note, happy listening!

So what else is going on this week?

Nature guide to the seasons…

If all this talk of birdsong has got you in the mood for learning about seasons, you might like to know about the Field Studies Council's new guide. The fold-out laminated Guide to the Seasons follows in the mould of all FSC guides – in other words, it’s clear, concise and field-friendly. Perfect for nature-learning.


Ever heard of The EUROPARC Federation? No, me neither, but apparently they have a neat programme called: Alfred Toepfer Natural Heritage Scholarships . The award provides young European conservationists with €3000 to undertake a study visit to one or more protected areas in European countries other than their own. And guess what? They count under-35 as ‘Young’. Even I can apply!

Citizen Science – get out there and hunt for the underdogs

If you finished the RSPB’s Big Birdwatch the other week and found yourself thirsty for something a bit weirder then there is a place for you. The nation will be going Oil Beetle crazy later this spring when Buglife (through the excellent OPAL scheme mentioned previously on this blog) launch their Oil Beetle Hunt. Oil beetles get their name because when they’re disturbed they release oily droplets from their bottom. Leafhoppers, however, just jump the hell away. You can survey for them by joining the Auchenorrhyncha Recording Scheme (name change anyone?). These little-recorded species need your help – why not make them the theme of a nature club sessions and try and find both at once? Better still, why not add in searches for stag beetles, bees and stick insects for that matter). Phasmidtastic.

Right, I’m off to get my pond ready for the arrival of my frogs and newts. (You can pass on sightings of these species to Froglife and ARG-UK, and report your spawning dates to Right, my heads about to explode.

Happy birdsong, Jules

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