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Bird song identification: common songs and calls

One of the joys of spring is the burst of bird song it brings, but telling birds apart by sound alone can be tricky for beginners. Start by learning the repertoire of some of the UK's most familiar songsters and you'll soon get your ear in.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robins sing to protect their territory all year round (Photo: John Bridges / WTML)
Robins sing to protect their territory all year round (Photo: John Bridges / WTML)

Song

A silvery, crystal song that becomes more wistful during the winter months

Call

Produces a rapid, urgent 'tic' call when alarmed

Best time to hear

Can be heard all year round, but especially at dusk. Artificial lighting can encourage it to sing long into the evening

Listen

Great tit (Parus major)

Great tits produce a number of different calls (Photo: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo)
Great tits produce a number of different calls (Photo: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

Clear and repetitive 'tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher'

Calls

Has a range of calls that can be difficult even for seasoned birdwatchers to identify

Best time to hear

Begins singing in early spring as buds begin to burst

Listen

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

One of the UK's smallest birds has one of the loudest songs (Photo: Steve Hedges / Alamy Stock Photo)
One of the UK's smallest birds has one of the loudest songs (Photo: Steve Hedges / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

A loud burst of song with consistent phrases, including a tell-tale machine gun rattle towards the end

Call

A loud, rapid 'tititic' when alarmed

Best time to hear

Can be heard all year round but especially in spring

► Listen

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Chiffchaffs are one of the first spring migrants to be heard (Photo: Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
Chiffchaffs are one of the first spring migrants to be heard (Photo: Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Song

Says its name with a lively, repeated 'chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chiff-chaff'

Call

Contact calls between pairs are short 'it' sounds

Best time to hear

Begins singing as early as February after returning to the UK on migration

Listen

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Willow warblers and chiffchaffs are most easily distinguished by their songs (Photo: Chris Grady / Alamy Stock Photo)
Willow warblers and chiffchaffs are most easily distinguished by their songs (Photo: Chris Grady / Alamy Stock Photo)

A melancholy, descending song of falling notes

Call

Soft 'hoo-eet' sound

Best time to hear

Listen for them from late March and early April once they've returned from sub-Saharan Africa

Listen

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinches have a range of calls and song (Photo: Kevin Sawford / Alamy Stock Photo)
Chaffinches have a range of calls and song (Photo: Kevin Sawford / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

Short and fast descending song that ends with 'diddieoo', or repetitive, insistent single notes known as the chaffinch's rain song

Calls

Contact call is an abrupt 'pink, pink' sound

Best time to hear

Can be heard throughout spring and summer

Listen

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

The fluting, fruity song of the blackbird is one the nation's best loved (Photo: Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
The fluting, fruity song of the blackbird is one the nation's best loved (Photo: Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

Rich and mellow with a languid pace and short pauses between phrases

Call

Scolding, harsh outburst when alarmed and often delivered in flight

Best time to hear

Typically heard on long summer evenings

Listen

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song thrushes like to sing from high points such as the tops of trees (Photo: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo)
Song thrushes like to sing from high points such as the tops of trees (Photo: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song 

Variety of short, high-pitched phrases, usually repeated two or three times in quick succession

Call

Flight call is a sharp 'tsip'

Best time to hear

Males begin singing as early as January, particularly in early morning

Listen

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatches are loud and vocal birds that aren't shy about making their presence known (Photo: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo)
Nuthatches are loud and vocal birds that aren't shy about making their presence known (Photo: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

A loud and rapid 'twit-twit-twit-twit' or slower 'sirr-sirr-sirr'

Call

Series of harsh sounds much like the song but which come closer together when excited

Best time to hear

Can be heard throughout the year

Listen

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Goldfinches are social birds and vocal when moving in flocks (Photo: Margaret Welby / Alamy Stock Photo)
Goldfinches are social birds and vocal when moving in flocks (Photo: Margaret Welby / Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

Light and twittery song with delicate phrases 

Call

Produces various calls, some fluttery and others shrill, particularly when travelling in groups 

Best time to hear

Listen for them from late April

Listen

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Yellowhammers can be heard on farmland or from rural gardens (Photo: Alan Williams/ Alamy Stock Photo)
Yellowhammers can be heard on farmland or from rural gardens (Photo: Alan Williams/ Alamy Stock Photo)

Song

Building notes that fall suddenly away in a wheeze, famously said to sound like 'little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese'

Call

Various, including 'twick' sounds and a thin 'see' when alarmed

Best time to hear

Heard singing from hedgerows throughout spring and summer

Listen

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Sound files courtesy of xeno-canto.org: robin by Andrew Harrop; great tit and goldfinch by Stuart Fisher; wren by Mike Ball; chiffchaff by Alexander Lees; willow warbler by Tony Fulford; chaffinch by Dave Curtis; blackbird by Frank Lambert; song thrush by Bram Piot; nuthatch by Nick Talbot; yellowhammer by Tony Whitehead.