Human language

Country Diary: Stand with the larks to hear the dawn chorus | Birds

Iit was International Dawn Chorus Day and we were at Loch Insh at 6am for a RSPB guided walk. The birds in the parking lot were putting on a good show, and already we were up to the morning challenge. Our guide was pointing and saying, “That’s a chaffinch!” No sooner had everyone turned their heads and tuned their ears than a pesky flock of chickadees, warblers and robins swooped in and mixed things up. Which was which? How would you describe birdsong? So as we walked, we collectively tried to capture the elusive language of birds in human language.

‘Willow Warbler has a cascade of pure, silvery notes, with a luminous uplift at the end.’ Photograph: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

To remember and imitate songs, rhythm and emphasis are as important as pitch. The willow warbler has a cascade of pure, silvery notes, with a bright uplift at the end, so we tried “willow-willow-willow-willow WARbler!” The two rusty great tit notes are often captioned “teacher-teacher” but don’t sound that way to me at all. I scribbled “du-WIT du-WIT”. But that’s what an owl says, isn’t it? With a “woo” thrown in? Bother. Not as easy as it looks.

Songbirds are primarily males that mark territory and attract females, which is why they launch so enthusiastically in the spring and all talk at once. The tiny wrens are invariably startling in their volume and speed, and I found a rapid rolling of the tongue against the teeth to be a close approximation of their whispering.

A black beanie pierced the foliage with its clear, soft hiss, bouncing over many notes like a piccolo soloist on speed, as the oystercatchers crossed the loch, resembling miniature trucks backing up. And then the curlew rose from the reeds with its beautiful bubbling song. A book of birds renders its call as “oo-ot, oo-ot oo-eet trru-ee trrru-eel trrrru-eel trrru-eel trrru-uhl”. The song thrush won the prize for lyrical range and nerve, while the common thrushreported someone, looks like Adele.

black beanie
“A black bonnet pierced the foliage with its clear and soft whistle.” Photography: Mike Lane/Getty

Our guide said the robin’s song had a melancholic vibe to it and was amazed when other members of the group assured him that it was upbeat. To think that all these years when her singing made him sad, she had tried to cheer him up. Obviously, there is more to the bird talk than meets the eye.