Birdwatching: three common bird songs

21 April 2020

Interview with 

Mark Eaton, RSPB

STARLING

A starling sitting on a thorny branch.

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We’re starting our journey through the sky with the sights and sounds of the early morning. Even in the city you’ll still likely hear birdsong, and if you’re keen-eyed enough, you can spot them. Mark Eaton is from the RSPB, and has been a birdwatcher for four decades. He’s guided Chris Smith through telling apart the dawn chorus...

Mark - We're just going to listen to three of the commonest birds we can find in the UK, that most people will have around them in their gardens or in the local park, somewhere they can get to and enjoy birdsong. They're three quite familiar species many people will know already, so it’s slow step for getting into birds.

Chris - Number one on Mark's list is the blackbird. My favourite bird, overall, because I love the Latin name: Turdus! Let's hear what it sounds like.

[BLACKBIRD SONG]

Chris - Now, that really is very reminiscent of the dawn chorus. I reckon I've got quite a few of those who are waking me up each morning. What other ways might we recognise a blackbird though?

Mark - Well certainly they are that archetypal bird of the dawn chorus, and if you wake up early in the morning - if unfortunately something wakes you up - that's often the first thing, the first bird that starts singing in the morning, so you can hear them on their own before the others, the sparrows and the pigeons join in. And it's a beautiful song. They like to feed on lawns, so if you've got any grass or park or you've got a lawn in your garden, you'll often see blackbirds bouncing around. They hop both feet together. And of course the clue's in the name; not the Latin name, not the slightly cheeky Turdus bit, but the blackbird. They are jet black, or the males at least are jet black, with that the yellow beak. The females are a bit browner, a bit speckled-y underneath. But you see those males with the sort of orangey-yellow beak and a little orange ring around the eye, the long tail; they're pretty unmistakable and they're very common. So most people will hear them and see them around where they live.

Chris - And do they eat worms? When you said they're feeding on the grass and things, are they going for worms and grubs and things?

Mark - They are, yes, yes. They are the sort of typical bird, cartoon bird digging for worms. Not many birds actually dig for worms, but blackbirds are one that really do specialise on finding worms in the lawns and in the undergrowth.

Chris - Let's sort of change it up a little bit, because the next bird on our list is the wren. So can we just hear what a wren sounds like?
[WREN SONG]

Chris - You see now I'm hearing these sounds, I'm recognising them and I realise that I've heard loads of these things without ever realising what they are. Tell us about wrens.

Mark - Wrens are actually our commonest bird. We have something like 11 million pairs of wrens in the UK, so 22 million of them. They're tiny! I mean that's why a lot of people won't realise. They might recognise that song; they might not have noticed wrens despite them being so common because they skulk around, they lurk in bushes, they're brown and streaky, so they're not very obvious, and they're absolutely tiny. They're about 10 centimetres long but they're incredibly loud; they have this voice you can hear from the length of a playing field away, belting it out. If you see them singing, their whole body vibrates, shakes while they're singing, such is the power they're putting into it while being nearly our smallest bird.

Chris - It's amazing. So size doesn't really come into it when you're a bird: size and volume don't go hand in hand, or I suppose hand in feather. But onto a different bird now and that's the starling now. These always used to be regarded as a little bit of a sort of a scruffy looking bird. Let's just hear their song for those who might not be so familiar.

[STARLING SONG]

Chris - See, I don't think that's half as tuneful as the prior two that we've listened to, but what can you tell us about starlings Mark?

Mark - I certainly stand up for starlings. I think they're fascinating birds. I mean one, you say scruffy, but if you see a starling this time of year, they're black but they have a beautiful oily sheen; a green and a purple gloss to their feathers, which are dusted with spots all over on the tips of the feathers. They're beautiful birds. And they make the strangest noises when they really get singing. It's like a robot trying to imitate a bird, I think; all sorts of strange trills and electronic sounding noises. And they're incredible mimics, they can really copy other birds they hear and other sounds they hear. Where I used to live I had a neighbour with a very annoying car alarm. Every day his car alarm would go off accidentally, it had some sort of fault. And the starlings learned the car alarm, so the starlings would copy the car alarm. So they're remarkable birds really, you might think they don't look like that much, but they are really clever. Fascinating birds. Worryingly actually not as common as they used to be. For every five starlings we had when I was young learning to birdwatch, there's only one left now, they've really declined. So not all well, but they are great birds.

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