Sunday, 7 September 2014

Is that a pebbly shripp I hear?

Last year (1 July 2013), I wrote about popular transcriptions of bird songs, such as the Yellowhammer’s “A little bit of bread and no cheese”. A more accurate rendition would be something like “tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tseeee”, but the memorable bread-and-cheese version certainly helps any non-birder to identify a singing yellowhammer. 

Unfortunately, apart from a handful of species that have simple songs and onomatopoeic names  — such as Chiffchaff, Cuckoo and Hoopoe — few birds have a consistently rendered song that can be represented verbally. One of those few is Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced CHET-ti), whose strident song can be transcribed appropriately as “Hey! You! Cetti-Cetti-Cetti! That’s me!”
Even more difficult to describe are birds’ flight calls and contact calls. To return to the Yellowhammer, when I checked a random selection of bird guides on my bookshelves, I found the following descriptions of its call: 

  • a discordant “stüff”
  • a rather grating “twink” and “twit”
  • a metallic “chip” and “twitic”
  • a rasping “dzüh”
  • a “chick”
  • a distinctive “chinz”
  • a loud “tchick”
  • a ringing “tink”
  • a “twink” or “tweak
  • a “tsrik” or “trs”
  • a pebbly “shripp”

A pebbly shripp? Would any of those renditions actually help you identify a Yellowhammer? 

The best way by far to learn bird sounds is to get out into the field, preferably accompanied by an expert, and listen to the various calls until they are ingrained on your memory. Soon you should, for example, be able to distinguish the Chiffchaff’s soft and plaintive “hu-EET” call from the similarly plumaged Willow Warbler’s slightly slower and more forceful “HU-eet”.  
Nowadays, the next best thing to direct experience in the field is browsing the wonderful Xeno-canto website (, through which birders around the world share their recordings of bird sounds. 

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