Britain’s best songbirds: how to identify each species

In Britain we are blessed with an incredible variety of beautiful bird song in spring. From the nightingale to the blackbird, here is your guide to the best British songbirds, including how to identify each species.

(GERMANY OUT) Nachtigall auf Ast sitzend rechts sehend singend  (Photo by blw Naturstudio/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Learn how to identify British birds with our essential birdsong guide, including advice on how to improve your identification skills.

Why do birds sing?

It’s mostly the male birds that sing and they do this to demonstrate how fit and healthy they are to potential mates and also tell rival males that they have secured a territory so “keep off”.

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Robin, Eithacus rubecula, in song Norfolk. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Spring is when birdsong is at its peak/Credit: Getty

What time of year is best for birdsong?

Spring is when birdsong is at its peak. This is when birds are looking for mates and beginning nesting. They time the hatching and fledging of their young to coincide with warmer weather and more food in the form of spring and summer insects. Many resident bird species begin their courtship songs in early February and they are joining from March to May by many tuneful songsters. By July, most birds fall silent.

What is the best time of day to hear birdsong?

The best time to hear birdsong is usually early in the morning – the dawn chorus – when there are few other human sounds to block out the birds. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 crisis meant that road, rail and air traffic is so reduced, the birds sound louder than ever. It offers us the rare chance to listen to their lusty singing throughout the day.

Blue tit on branch

In our essential British birdsong guide we have gathered a selection of the 15 finest singers, in descending order. We’ve also included a link to each birdsong to help you identify each species.

15. Dunnock

Dunnock / hedge accentor / hedge sparrow / hedge warbler (Prunella modularis) perched in tree. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The dunnock (Prunella modularis)  is also known as the hedge accentor, hedge sparrow and hedge warbler – though it is not related to sparrows or warblers. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A garden, park, woodland and hedgerow regular, the small brown, sparrow-like bird with a grey head and thin beak offers a trill a bit like a rotating squeaky wheel. It’s a fresh, surprising sound and often heard very early in the year, from late January onwards.

Listen to the dunnock


14. Chaffinch

Common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) male perched in tree in late winter / early spring. (Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) is brightly coloured while the female is a blend of subtle greens and browns. (Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the 1950s and 60s, it was probably Britain’s most common bird but, despite declines, this handsome finch can still be heard singing from large garden trees, the tops of hedgerows and the edge of woods. The song is a pleasing accelerating chatter that only really gets into its stride from April onwards and is the perfect accompaniment to drowsy June days.

Listen to the chaffinch


13. Great tit

Great tit (Parus major) perched on wooden garden fence in the snow in winter. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
If you hear a bird in a wood in early spring and you don’t recognise its call, it’s likely to be a great tit. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Another early harbinger of spring, the great tit sings on sunny days from January but becomes much quieter by late April, when it is busy with feeding nestlings. It has a huge repertoire of wheezes, trills and two-note calls. Not noticeably beautiful but the far-carrying “tee-cher, tee-cher” song is hugely uplifting in early spring woodlands.

Listen to the great tit


12. Goldfinch

Two European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) perched in tree against blue sky in spring. (Photo by: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A group of goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) is known as a ‘charm’. (Photo by: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Offering delightful tinkling metallic songs and calls in flight, the goldfinch has become a much more common garden and hedgerow bird in recent years. Its hyperactive song, usually delivered from tall trees, combines tinny notes, fluting and rattles. It’s distinctive but not melodious enough to make the top 10.

Listen to the goldfinch


11. Nuthatch

MINSK, BELARUS NOVEMBER 15, 2019: A nuthatch on a tree. Natalia Fedosenko/TASS (Photo by Natalia FedosenkoTASS via Getty Images)
A nuthatch foraging – they generally move down a trunk while looking for insects (rather than up). Natalia Fedosenko/TASS (Photo by Natalia FedosenkoTASS via Getty Images)

The kingfisher of the woods – the dapper nuthatch clings woodpecker like to tree trunks and branches producing a bewildering array of piping notes – “tew, tew, tew” and metallic trills that reverberate through deciduous woods from January to August. Once you get your ear in, you will hear nuthatches everywhere.

Listen to the nuthatch


10. Turtle dove

Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur, spring UK. (Photo by: name/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) have declined by over 90% since the 1960s. (Photo by: name/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Not a songbird in the strictest sense but this summer migrant’s soporific purr is the lullaby of farmland copses, heathy edges and downland scrub. Our smallest and most beautiful pigeon is sadly in terrible decline so the song is unheard by most of us. But it remains a summer-long treasure. A special shout out for the brooding hoot of the more common stock dove, too.

Listen to the turtle dove

Bird feeder

9. Robin

Robin, Eithacus rubecula, in song Norfolk. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Robin (Eithacus rubecula) in song in Norfolk. Male robins defend their territories very aggressively, sometimes to the death (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Potentially could be higher on the list, the robin’s rapid, high-pitched melodies trail off wistfully – and are familiar to anyone who has ever gone outside. Lovely and, thankfully, one of the commonest birdsongs you’ll hear today. Uniquely, robins sing throughout winter and even through the night in some cities. A total joy.

Listen to the robin


8. Willow warbler

Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, Northumberland spring. (Photo by: name/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The willow warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, is easily confused with the chiffchaff, until it sings. (Photo by: name/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A liquid cascade of notes tumbling from riverside alders (and sometimes willows) but most often heard among scrubby hawthorns in upland areas. This tiny yellow-green warbler is a summer visitor, appearing from the second week of April. It often passes through cities where its silvery notes bring a bit of the wild briefly to urban parks and railway cuttings.

Listen to the willow warbler


7. Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus) (Photo by: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus) is much larger than its close relative the song thrush – about the size of a London pigeon. (Photo by: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The saddest sounding song on the list – the sweet, questioning plaintive phrases of the mistle thrush drift from the edges of woods and evoke a sense of longing for nature in anyone hearing it. This large thrush often sings on through gales and rain, earning it the nickname “stormcrow”.

Listen to the mistle thrush


6. Blackcap

Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, male in song Norfolk spring. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) can be mistaken for the rarer garden warbler but the latter has a scratchier song that seems never to end. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Not for nothing is this little migrant known as the northern nightingale as it pipes up from thickets and garden hedges. Arriving in mid March, it sings a robin-like song but with richer, more rounded, more confident notes. The male has the black cap, the female a smart brown one.

Listen to the blackcap


5. Skylark

Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing in flight against blue sky in spring. (Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing in flight. As it sings, it flies higher and higher until difficult to spot from the ground. (Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most evocative of all British bird songs, the skylark’s unremitting ode to joy as it rises and spirals in the skies above moorland, meadow and marsh have inspired composers and writers everywhere. A magnificently uplifting and provoking sky chatter, particularly when the diminutive small brown songster disappears into the deep blue above.

Listen to the skylark


4. Nightingale

(GERMANY OUT) Nachtigall auf Ast sitzend rechts sehend singend (Photo by blw Naturstudio/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
In Germany, the nightingale is quite common in major cities. Alas, it is now a rare bird in Britain and mostly found in southern and eastern counties. (Photo by blw Naturstudio/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Many would argue that the nightingale should be number one. The powerful, stunningly clear fluted notes delivered in short, ever-varying bursts lights up the dusk thicket. No other species is so vocal and yet so seldom seen – and few can dominate its surroundings with such a glorious and penetrating song.

Listen to the nightingale


3. Song thrush

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) portrait. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Song thrushes (Turdus philomelos) love to eat snails and bash the shells off on a favourite stone as if using an anvil. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

We think the song thrush matches the nightingale and then some with a rich, beautiful and varied song style. It repeats its cascading phrases so that we get to know them – once memorable phrase includes “snowy, snowy, snowy”. Despite declines, this resident thrush with a speckled chest is still familiar to most of us.

Listen to the song thrush


2. Blackbird

Common blackbird (Turdus merula) male perched in tree. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A male common blackbird (Turdus merula) is entirely black – the female is uniformly pale brown. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Warm spring evenings and lazy blackbird song are the stuff of the best childhood memories. And for adults, the perfect accompaniment to a G&T in the garden. This classy seductive sometimes inquisitive warble is still wonderfully common across Britain and, if the bird was rarer, we would travel many miles to hear it.

Listen to the blackbird


1. Woodlark

Woodlark Lullula arborea, Nottinghamshire, England
The woodlark (Lullula arborea) nests on the ground on lowland heaths and commons and is vulnerable to disturbance by dogs (RSPB Images).

A tear-jerkingly lovely cascade of pearly notes but varied each time to create a stunning wild solo. Not well known as this species clings to our rare lowland heaths where it delivers its virtuoso performances mostly in early spring. But what a song – a hauntingly beautiful evocation of the strange landscapes it calls home, delivered from the tallest trees or in wide circular flights. Next year, make a pilgrimage to hear one. Listen to our podcast on the woodlark, recording in 2020 on Chobham Common in Surrey. 

Listen to the woodlark


How to identify birdsong – a beginner’s guide

Jess Price, from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, explains how to brush up your identification skills.

Get an early start

In the south singing birds really hit their peak in late April and early May. Walking through woodland at dawn can be a fabulous experience, but for those of us trying to identify birds it can be pretty overwhelming. In January and February a much smaller number of species are singing so by starting to learn songs now you can work you way up to the full dawn chorus in a few months time.

Take baby steps

Take the time to learn just a couple of species really well before adding anymore. For most people the easiest birds to start with are those that a regularly heard singing in gardens and parks such as robin, blackbird, wren and dunnock. Once you can confidently identify these, try adding in some others.

Visualise

It will really help you to remember a song if you associate it with something you can visualise in your mind. For example when I hear the descending song of a chaffinch I always see a cricketer running up to the crease and bowling a ball with a flourish. This particular association may not work for everyone, so when listening to a song spend time thinking about what will work for you.

Embrace technology

There is now a huge range of bird song phone apps, CDs and websites available to help you. Before you go out into the garden, spend 10 minutes listening to two or three species that you think you might hear. This will be even more effective if you can refer to the description of the song and picture of the bird in your bird guide at the same time. You might even like to annotate this with little notes of what the song reminds you of. The website Xeno-Canto is great resource.

But remember that listing to a recording is very different to hearing a bird outside with leaves rustling, dogs barking and other birds singing. So make sure you spend lots of time outside just sitting and focusing on what you can hear.

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Spend time with an expert

Learning from around an expert can be a huge help. You might like to join a local birding group or attend one of The Wildlife Trusts’ fantastic bird courses.