Winter’s greatest soloist

Adrian Thomas reveals which fabulous winter soloist we can hear singing right now, and introduces a new RSPB book all about bird song.

Cold comfort

Now in late autumn, with winter close upon us, it’s probably the last time of year you’d expect to hear birds singing. But, if you go into your garden on any still day, even a frosty one, you have a very good chance of hearing a sound that is the aural essence of the season: the winter song of the robin.

The reason for the robin’s unseasonal outpouring of song is that these familiar garden birds are in fact the ultimate loner. To survive the winter, they need to defend a feeding territory from other robins, and song is their weapon of choice to demonstrate ownership.

The robin’s song can often be heard early in the morning or in the evening after the sun has gone down. With their large eyes, robins can see well in low light so they are still very much on guard for rivals infiltrating their territory. Robins will even sing by streetlight, and it is the bird perhaps most frequently mistaken for that rare summer visitor, the nightingale.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s only the male robins putting on a performance, given that it’s almost exclusively male songbirds that sing in spring. But right now, your garden vocalist could just as easily be a female, though there’s no easy way to tell the difference.

Singing a sad song

So, how do you know for sure that the song coming from a thicket is a robin and not a dunnock or wren? Well, the robin’s song is a series of short verses, each of which is typically just 1.5–2 seconds in length. Each subsequent verse is different: this isn’t a bird that likes to repeat itself. Research has shown that one bird can have 100 or more different verses in its repertoire, and even then it can modify and adapt them.

But it is the feel of the song that is most revealing: it’s watery, with gurgles, trickles and ripples. Within one verse, you might get a few long, still notes like a mountain pool, before it overflows with fast burbled notes tripping over each other. It’s a little sad, a little wistful, but always a winter delight.

Hear the robin's song

Brush up on your bird song

I hope you enjoy the track of robin song with this blog. Indeed, you may have seen me out doing my sound recording in a recent edition of Countryfile on BBC1, championing the sounds of winter.

If you’d like to learn more about bird song, you might like to try the RSPB Guide to Birdsong, which comes as a book with an accompanying CD/digital sound download. In it, I’ve tried to find all sorts of ways to help you learn the amazing songs and calls of the UK’s birds.

On the recordings, I take you through 70 common bird species, and my narration pinpoints the most important features to listen for. I’ve set it out rather like learning a foreign language, so you can work through it step by step, trying out the ‘test yourself’ sections along the way, or just dip in wherever you like.

I’m passionate about our bird sounds, the sense of place and season they bring, and the joy they evoke. In the face of nature’s crisis, can we let our birds fall silent?