St Nicks

Centre for nature and green living

Spotlight on… Bird song and calls

Most birds will sing to defend a territory and attract a mate. It might therefore seem a bit counterintuitive to learn birdsong in winter outside of the peak breeding season – and it is true that there are fewer birds singing at this time of year – but that makes their individual songs much easier to hear and distinguish.

• Birdsong is typically a composition of sound used to advertise the bird’s presence, defending territory or attracting a mate.
• A bird call on the other hand is a much simpler piece of sound, often shorter, and used for keeping in touch with relatives or members of a social group (contact calls) or warning of predators (alarm calls).
As with all things in nature, sometimes the distinction between song and call is extremely blurred.


Robin (image source: Phil Taylor)

Robins are one of the main birds that sing during winter and are one of the easiest to hear. The song is made up of quite complicated verses, which sound liquid-y and flowing – but rather than me attempt to describe their sound is, it’s probably best you follow this link to the RSPB webpage to listen to the song itself.

The reason robins are so easy to hear during winter is that they are one of the few British species that maintain a territory during this time of year. Also female robins maintain a territory and sing as well, a fact that was only discovered during the early 1920s.

There are a few ideas about why robins maintain territories during winter, with the main one being they are securing themselves a source of food. However, in his excellent book The Robin: A Biography, Stephen Moss discusses other theories, including one that robins sing to suppress their instinct to migrate. By doing this, in theory, robins will be in a key position to set up a territory in the actual breeding season next spring, rather than having to travel from far away and then stake a claim.

You may also notice some robins making a quieter simpler song, this is known as a subsong and is made by young birds practising ready for the next breeding season.


Goldfinch (image source: Pixabay)

At this time of year it is quite common to see goldfinches in large flocks descend onto trees such as Alder where they will prise seeds from the cone like structures. Alternatively they might simply be flying overhead. In either circumstances, you will usually hear them before you see them. The goldfinches will call to each other, making a loud jangling sound a bit like wind chimes, with other metallic notes and sometimes buzzes.

I’ve struggled to find a recording online that accurately represents the sounds that we usually hear at St Nicks, but the most useful one can be found on youtube by clicking this link.

Regardless of where you are, if you hear some of the metallic jangling noise I advise you to look up and you might be lucky enough to see a flock of goldfinches flying overhead. Another place to look out for goldfinches is on teasels. They will often land on these plants and pluck out seeds from the spiky flower heads. I was recently reminded that we finally saw this at St Nicks in the flesh, and I managed to get a photo, which I have now found gathering electronic dust on my hard drive:

Goldfinch on a teasel (Photo: Phil Taylor)


Kingfisher (Photo: Pixabay)

I wouldn’t necessarily classify a Kingfisher as a winter bird, or be that well known for making noises at this time of year, but I’m including it because it is still seen at St Nicks over the winter.

I would say that when spotting a Kingfisher, other than extreme patience, getting up really early, or incredible luck, the main thing to help you is to the listen out for their call. There have been many times when I’ve walked along the River Ouse and the only way I saw a Kingfisher was that its call alerted me to its presence. Most of the kingfishers I’ve seen in my life, were heard first, and then seen.

The call is a loud high-pitched squeaking sound – designed to cut through the noise of flowing water, raging streams etc. Click here to listen to a very good recording on the RSPB website.

This spotlight blog was written by Phil Taylor from Green Underwing Wildlife Education who also leads our Discover Nature Ecotherapy sessions. You can find out more about Green Underwing by clicking here or follow on twitter using @greenunderwing. This blog has been shared on Phil’s own website previously and is posted here with his express permission.

19 January 2021 | Categories: Spotlight on... | Tags: Alder, bird song, birds, Goldfinch, kingfisher, robin, teasel