Song Thrush singing in a tree

Dawn Chorus Day 2021

Sunday 2 May 2021 is International Dawn Chorus Day. To celebrate, we went out early one morning in late April to Coldham’s Common in Cambridge with ornithologist Dr Rob Pople to record the birds singing as the sun was rising. Here you can watch highlights of our dawn chorus walk, and listen to the main species singing with tips on how to recognise them.

Listening to the Dawn Chorus at Coldham’s Common, Cambridge

Why not open your window or step out into your garden early on Sunday 2 May and take a listen – what can you hear?

We would love you to share your Day Chorus Day with us by sending in a recording. Send your audio or video recordings to us at umzc@zoo.cam.ac.uk and your recordings could feature on our online community gallery for all to hear!

Tips for identifying and learning birdsong

Follow these top tips from Dr Rob Pople and learn how to identify birds from their songs, from the loud, high-pitched bursts of a wren to the mellow tones of a blackbird.

1. Start early in the year.

Robin on a blue post
Robin. (c) John Howlett

Although the dawn chorus in May is an amazing experience (and definitely recommended!), it can be a challenging place to start learning birdsong, with the number (and volume) of competing sounds at times a bit overwhelming. Many of our resident bird species start singing during the late-winter and early spring, so it can be helpful to learn/‘fix’ some of these earlier in the year, before they are joined in the chorus by our migrant breeding species, which mostly arrive in April and May.

2. Focus on the key characteristics of the sound.

Goldcrest
Goldcrest. (c) John Howlett

Paying particular attention to the structure and length (e.g. a repeated short phrase, or longer, more ‘free-style’ warble?), pitch (high-pitched like a Goldcrest, or lower-pitched like a Blackbird), speed/tempo (e.g. ‘hurried’ like a Dunnock?), volume (loud and ‘explosive’ like a Wren?) and overall tone or quality (‘sweet’, ‘scratchy’, ‘fluty’, ‘thin’, ‘mellow’, ‘squeaky’?) of a new song or call can be helpful starting points.

3. Make comparisons with species you already know.

Mistle Thrush (c) Wildife Terry

If you hear a new song that sounds quite like a Blackbird’s, but is a bit higher-pitched, faster and maybe a bit ‘wilder’, then it might well be a Mistle Thrush (in this case, a closely related species, although this may not always be the case).

4. Keep in mind the ‘context’.

Nightingale singing in a tree
Nightingale. (c) Kev Chapman CC BY 2.0

Factors that can provide helpful clues to the source of an unknown song or call include geographical location and time of year (you almost certainly won’t be listening to a Nightingale in Lancashire in March, as the species is largely restricted to the south-east of the UK, and typically doesn’t arrive back from its wintering grounds until mid- to late-April), habitat (although birds on passage can sing from some slightly ‘atypical’ places!) and the height and/or cover the song is being delivered from.

5. Engage your visual memory.

Male blackcap on a branch
Blackcap (c) Pete Beard CC BY 2.0

Many people find it easier to commit songs to memory if they are simultaneously stimulating the visual part of the brain, so spend some time watching birds sing (or call) – either ‘in the flesh’, if you are able to see them, or by searching online for videos, if you’re trying to learn particular species at home. And for those of you with a passable understanding of physics and/or of a more musical nature, watching a rolling spectrogram online (e.g., on the Macaulay Library website) can be a good way to ‘visualise’ a new sound and help commit it to memory.

6. Use helpful mnemonics.

Yellowhammer
Yellowhammer (c) Ian Preston CC BY 2.0

Different things work for different people, but if the traditional “A-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-chee–eese” mnemonic helps you remember/identify Yellowhammer song, then use it! If not, why not come up with your own?

7. Record songs/calls you don’t recognise.

Blue tit perched on a branch
Blue Tit. (c) John Howlett

You don’t need fancy equipment to obtain a recording of a sound you can’t immediately identify. Often, a mobile phone pointed in the right direction plus your voice-memo app (or similar) can capture enough of the sound for you to play it back later, perhaps to a more knowledgeable friend, or when you have access to other recordings to compare it with. And if the bird is too distant or quiet for your mobile to capture it satisfactorily, you can always record your best imitation (or description) of the sound.

8. Practice makes perfect!

Photograph of a goldfinch
Goldfinch (c) John Howlett

For most people, learning bird songs (and calls) is not as easy as they anticipate. Progress can be rather slow, but stick at it, ‘consolidate’ the species you’re already familiar with each season, slowly build up your repertoire of ‘new’ species and – perhaps most importantly – enjoy!

Useful Resources

BTO “#BirdSongBasics” YouTube videos Covering 20 or so of the common species you might hear in/from your garden or local park. Originally uploaded in April–May 2020.

BTO “Night singers” identification video Covering Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush & Nightingale.

Macaulay Library audio archive This is a US-based resource, so you will need to search for recordings/spectrograms using ‘international’ English names of species, e.g. “European Robin”; alternatively, type the ‘common’ English name into the search box and then select the most likely-looking option – often starting “Common”, “European” or “Eurasian” –  from the drop-down list.

RSPB “Bird song identifier” Recordings and descriptions of the songs/calls of 19 common species.

Wildlife Trusts “International Dawn Chorus Day” page Including embedded Xeno-canto recordings of Song Thrush, Blackbird, Robin, Blackcap & Chiffchaff.

Birdsong on the blog

Look back on Dawn Chorus Day 2020 with a recording by learning officer Roz Wade made last year.

Listen to blackbirds with visitor engagement volunteer Dr Tony Fulford’s post ‘Song of the Blackbird’

Learn to tell apart some of our warbler species with Tony Fulford.

And catch up on the Birds episode of Zoology Live from June 2020.

Song Thrush singing in a tree
Song Thrush (c) Ian Preston CC BY 2.0

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