What is a songbird? Each is a passerine, or perching bird, according to classification, but that’s just the start of the story. Songbirds are the musicians behind the dawn chorus; a morning symphony that rings through forests and countryside and, as city dwellers may have observed in greater clarity during quieter months of the pandemic, in urban spaces too.
During the springtime, as woodlands blaze with bluebells and sunshine streams through newly-green trees, the beauty of British birdsong comes into its own. It’s why the first Sunday of May each year is marked as International Dawn Chorus Day, a global event that encourages wildlife enthusiasts to join a bird-spotting walk — or to just wake up early and open a window.
Many of these wild songsters are facing a precarious future. According to the latest report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), numerous species once common throughout the country are facing near-decimation. The study found 19 million fewer pairs of breeding birds in the UK compared to the late 1960s — including turtle doves, which have declined by 98%; Britain's endemic sub species of willow tit, which is reported to be down 94%; and starlings too, which have seen a fall of 82%. Each of these birds, alongside countless others, have a part to play in the nation’s soundscape, ecosystem and cultural identity, and the fight is on to preserve their populations.
Birdsong, it should be noted, may be good for our health, too. “There’s plenty of research that proves just how much experiencing nature through our senses is beneficial to our wellbeing,” says Fiona Burns, a senior conservation scientist at the RSPB. “But birdsong goes beyond that — in literature and music, it’s culturally important to the people of Britain.”
Let’s take, as a case study, the cultural heft of one songbird in particular: the nightingale. A harbinger of spring, it’s inspired musicians and poets for centuries; John Keats’ 1819 poem Ode to a Nightingale is perhaps the most famous in this canon. The bird’s renown sits at odds with its meek, reclusive nature — they like to hide among dense thickets of shrubbery. And they’re becoming increasingly rare: the bird’s numbers have declined by 92% since 1970.
“The nightingale is the classic songbird,” says Fiona. “And very enigmatic. But changes in the ways in which woodland is managed have led to less of the dense scrub that they inhabit. Without that scrub, you simply lose your nightingales.”
There is good news, though. With greater attention being paid to conservation by industries including tourism and agriculture, new regenerative projects are helping to recover depleted landscapes, reintroduce species and create and safeguard habitats. It’s this targeted action that’s led to the remarkable population recovery of species including wrens, blackcaps and cirl buntings. Garden bird feeders appear to have had an impact too, with an upward trend in grassroots conservation schemes leading to the recovery of goldfinches, among others.
Despite these increases, the survival of songbirds remains dependent upon conservation efforts, and that’s where travellers come in. Volunteering and monitoring schemes, such as those hosted by the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust, bring wildlife enthusiasts to the frontline of habitat conservation, to work directly with nature, and to preserve it.
More simple steps can be taken, too. Through the BTO’s BirdTrack app, species spotted while out exploring — whether you’re hiking through forests, say, or on a trip to the seaside — can be easily logged, which directly assists in population monitoring. Alternatively, head to a local wildlife reserve, where any money you spend contributes vital funds to the charities working to protect songbirds.
Similar in appearance to coal and marsh tits, willow tits are mostly found in damp willow thickets, such as those found in Wood of Cree in Dumfries and Galloway or RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire.
Five of Britain’s threatened songbirds and where to see them
Habitat: woodland, grassland and wetland
Nightingales are migratory birds, arriving in the UK from mid-April until the end of August. Their song is most often heard in the spring, as the males attempt to attract females. They’re mostly found in the South East — head to RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, Blean Woods Nature Reserve in Kent, Paxton Pits Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire, or Lodge Hill in Kent for the best chances of spotting them.
2. Willow tit
Habitat: woodland, urban and suburban
Similar in appearance to coal and marsh tits, willow tits are mostly found in damp willow thickets, such as those on the edges of peat bogs and marshes. They’re primarily found in England and Wales. Head to Wood of Cree in Dumfries and Galloway, RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire, RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor in South Yorkshire, or Lake Vyrnwy in Powys for the best chances of spotting one.
Habitat: open countryside and grazed farmland
Inconspicuous on the ground, these small brown birds are spotted more easily while performing their distinctive, near-vertical flight. They’re widespread throughout the UK, so can be spotted while walking or hiking and at many RSPB reserves.
Habitat: widespread in a range of habitats throughout the UK
Easily recognisable by sight and sound, these glossy, almost iridescent black birds have a very distinctive whistle. They’re usually found in groups: during autumn and winter, they can be seen in enormous flocks performing spectacular murmurations. Brighton Pier, Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor are reliable spots, but you can search for a local murmuration via the Starlings in the UK website.
5. Tree sparrow
Habitat: woodland, farmland
Unlike the house sparrow, the tree sparrow is most often found in woodlands and farmlands as opposed to urban areas, and they’re distinguished by their chestnut-brown heads and black cheek spots. They’re found in their greatest numbers in the Midlands and North West, in hedgerows and on the edges of woodlands. Head to Loch of Strathbeg Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire, Ouse Washes Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire, Portmore Lough Nature Reserve in County Antrim, Dearne Valley Old Moor in South Yorkshire, or RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire for the best chances of seeing one.
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