If your bedroom window overlooks a garden or woodland, you will be keenly aware that the dawn chorus is in full swing. It may be a bit much, so early in the morning. But learn who is making all the noise, and you won’t mind being woken. In May, if you can walk through a wood with the birds invisible among the leaves and identify them all, and understand what they are saying, you will have gained a skill that gives pleasure for a lifetime.
Start with the easy ones. A chiff-chaff sharpens his knife, over and over again. The tell-tale great tit sings, “teacher! teacher!” A songthrush may say lots of things but whatever he says, he says it at least three times. A robin sounds regretful and silvery. A willow warbler is like a rather feeble person laughing so hard it hurts. A chaffinch is a cricketer running up the pitch and then bowling. A wren, tiny though it is, is ridiculously loud and includes a hard trill. The collared dove’s tediously repeated football chant “Uni-ted, Uni-ted” is quite different from the woodpigeon’s long-winded, throaty cooing. Greenfinches, helpfully, say “gree-eeen” over and over.
The best way to learn is to invest in some CDs or downloads of birdsong. You can listen to them while driving. Birdsong is information-heavy: for example a blackbird’s melodious phrases, with frequent pauses to allow you to catch up, say: “I’m a healthy male blackbird. This is my territory, which I defend vigorously. My mate is nearby and she is fertile.”
Birds have calls as well as songs, and alarm calls can be highly specific. Some attentive ornithologists can tell the difference between “ground predator spotted!” and “flying predator spotted!”
Did you know that there are armchair birders who make it their business to spot inappropriate birdsong in TV programmes and films? Pity the sound engineers trying to exclude the ubiquitous collared dove (which reached Britain only in the 1950s) from 18th-century costume dramas. But mostly they do not care; they add cuckoos in autumn, and tawny owl hoots as a shorthand for “spooky”, and barn owl screeches for “extra spooky”.
As you get to learn the songs, your favourites will no doubt be strictly personal. For me, the fruity whistles and chirrups of nuthatches cheer up winter — you can hear them already in grim January weather — and the first drumming of a greater spotted woodpecker is the thrilling knell of spring. A mistlethrush singing from a tall tree, his spotted chest thrust out, gives you a sad story told truthfully, but without self-pity.
Occasionally you will hear something hugely surprising. A golden eagle, in West Dorset? That turned out to be a tame one, used for display. But twice I have heard golden orioles in the Marshwood Vale, and they were for real.