What bird is that?

That black one over there must be a blackbird – or a starling? No, yellow beak … a chough then? Every beginning is hard. Not everyone is born a birdwatcher, and not everyone has the opportunity to learn about all the local bird species, let alone worldwide. The matter gets even more confusing, considering that in many species the males look different from the females, and the young birds from their parents – and if that wasn’t complicated enough, some bird species even display seasonal variations in their appearance.

Yet birds can not only be recognized visually, but also by their vocalizations. What may seem like an even greater challenge to some, is not necessarily always difficult. Blackbirds, starlings and choughs are all kind of black, but they produce very different sounds. Some bird species, such as the common chiffchaff and the willow warbler, are closely related to each other and look confusingly similar. Even for professionals, these two species are actually easier to identify by their species-specific songs than by their appearance. Here we want to give you the opportunity to learn about bird species, the recognition and visualization of bird song, as well as about topics around bird conservation. If you are interested in school materials around Dawn Chorus, click here.


You can only truly appreciate and protect what you know. And you can only miss what you were once aware of.

We believe that learning about birds should be fun, and we would like to inspire you to explore the fascinating world of birds and their songs. There is no need to be afraid of learning to recognize birds by their songs: not everyone has to become an expert ornithologist who can recognize every local bird or whistle along to their tunes. But perhaps some of you will be drawn deep into the subject once you have overcome the initial hurdles. Neither does one become a conservation specialist overnight. Nevertheless, there are many things big and small that you can do to help nature. Therefore, we want to provide you with a few tools that make it easier to familiarise yourself with the subject, and compiled some links to our various partners.

Dawn Chorus at school

The Dawn Chorus project aims to provide a new approach to nature, not only for adults but also for kids and youths: to experience biological diversity and its beauty through your ears, and to let your scientific curiosity take wing.

In celebration of the International Day for Biological Diversity on Sunday, May 22, 2022, a new teaching unit (so far German only) about Dawn Chorus was developed for schoolchildren and teachers, with great videos and a prize competition. Curious? Then take a look at BIOTOPIA’s education pages and join in!

A short portrait of the most important Dawn Chorus singers

Out of the thousands of bird species existing today, we here present to you five very special Dawn Chorus singers: the Common blackbird and Great tit, because they are listed most often by Dawn Chorus participants, and are among the most common breeding birds in Germany. The Eurasian blackcap, Eurasian wren and Common cuckoo, because they are recognized more for their characteristic song than for their appearance. These five bird species thus represent exactly what Dawn Chorus is all about: using different senses to immerse oneself in the fascinating world of birds.

The songs and their visual representations (spectrograms) are taken from the bird song website xeno-canto.org. The descriptions of our five species portraits in part come from the digital art series “Survival Songs” by multimedia artists Marcel Karnapke and Mika Johnson, which aesthetically and strikingly raise awareness to the threats that birds increasingly face in our world. The texts were created in collaboration with the artists, and with expert advice from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence (in foundation).

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Blackbird by Frank Derer, LBV-Bildarchiv

This bird is well known to anyone who appreciates beautiful bird songs.The wonderfully melodious song is originally adapted to be sung and heard in woodland areas. It is best described as melodious, flute-like and greatly pleasing to the human ear. The perfect lullaby for children in summer, even in the city. The male blackbird performs its song in a prominent posture, usually from exposed song posts, such as rooftops or trees.

Currently, the Common blackbird is one of the most frequent bird species in European gardens, and was the number one most recognized species in the Dawn Chorus project. However, despite these currently high numbers, blackbirds are threatened by the Usutu virus (USUV): a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that emerged in Europe in the late 90s. While the effect of USUV on different bird species varies, blackbirds are amongst the worst affected, leading to their decline in large numbers in some areas.

The Great tit (Parus major)

Great tit by Max Kugler, LBV-Bildarchiv

The Great tit’s vocal repertoire is pretty diverse, but human listeners would probably not call this bird a virtuoso for its song. But the latter is certainly catchy enough, as it is often repeated and sounds something between mechanic and silly: tsi-tsi bee, tsi-tsi bee! Who can resist this?

While the great tit is an extremely common bird (ranking second most recognised bird in Dawn Chorus), highly flexible in terms of both, nesting and food, they are likely to become endangered if the climate changes too quickly. The reason for this relates to food supplies. When spring arrives early, the trees leaf out earlier, causing the larvae that feed on these plants to emerge earlier. Since the great tit belongs to a group of species for which early chick survival depends on the abundance of these larvae, must correctly time its breeding to the ever-changing arrival of spring so as to successfully feed and raise its hatchlings. This fluctuating availability of peak food supplies could greatly put the great tit (and many other species) at risk.

Der Kuckuck (Cuculus Canorus)

Cuckoo by Herbert Henderkes, LBV-Bildarchiv

“Cuckoo!” – this call is one of the iconic sounds of spring for Dawn Chorus participants and bird song lovers everywhere. This is why the cuckoo certainly deserved its spot among the five Dawn Chorus species portraits, even though it is not a songbird, and its typical call isn’t learned but “only” innate.

Sadly the common cuckoo bird is on the decline worldwide,  partly due to the loss of suitable habitats and climate change. Specifically, the cuckoo, which migrates each year, is known for depositing its egg into the nest of a host which then incubates and feeds the cuckoo chicks that hatch. But while many other species are more flexible in their timing of arrival at their breeding grounds, the cuckoo’s return, each spring, is strongly predetermined. This means that the cuckoo’s highly specialized reproductive strategy (egg-dumping) becomes increasingly ineffective because their hosts may already have chicks or be done with their first clutch by the time the cuckoo lays its egg in their nest.

Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia Atricapilla)

Blackcap by Josef Baumgartner, LBV-Bildarchiv

The blackcap’s song is pretty conspicuous and melodious, and is probably best described as “talkative” or “chatty”. Despite its acoustic conspicuousness, the song is rarely presented from males on exposed song posts but rather sung from bushes or trees.

Beloved for their musical songs, blackcaps sing to a wide fan base, including ears in Europe, western Asia, and northwestern Africa. Thankfully, they are currently neither rare nor endangered (blackcaps were the fourth most recognized species for Dawn Chorus participants), but which may change if their living conditions change too quickly, for example through rapid climate change or habitat destruction. Also, some restaurants in Cyprus still secretly serve ambelopoulia – a dish made up of illegally caught wild songbirds. As the blackcaps and other birds migrate through Cyprus, poachers use both vast nets and sticks coated with glue to catch hundreds of thousands of them. Besides being painful and tortuous, this industrial-scale trapping poses a danger to more than 150 bird species.

The Eurasian wren (Troglodytes Troglodytes)

Wren by Wolfgang Forstmeier

The Eurasian wren is a tiny brown bird that is more easily heard than seen. Its song is very loud and clear, especially considering the small size of its singer. The characteristic brazen song consists of multiple trills, and is usually presented from the underbrush or other dense vegetation. If you do happen to detect this little bird, you will most easily recognise it by its cocked tail.

Often praised in European folklore, the wren was even considered the “king of all birds” by some. Aesop mentions in a fable that the clever wren hide in the eagle’s feathers to “fly “ higher than it. Since the bird who flies highest would be the king of all animals. This trickery did not intronate the wren but apparently led to his name in many languages. The wren seeks protection in dense vegetation but which, unfortunately, is often removed as humans build new properties or cut down hedges for agricultural efficiency. In doing so, humans have caused the wren to be under a threat in highly urban or developed areas.

Spectrograms: Bird songs to read along

Bird songs and other sounds of nature can be represented visually. You may have tried “Sonic Feather”, an artistic translation into images of what you hear. Musical notes are also a well-known way to visually represent acoustic features. However, this form of visualization is not sufficient to represent complex acoustic signals in a way that provides enough information about the original sound signal. In science, a clearer and more meaningful form of representation is needed, which is why spectrograms (frequency representations) or the even more precise sonograms (for the acoustic spectrum) are used. These are visual representations of the pitch along a time axis (from left to right).

Pitch is specified in hertz (Hz), and indicates how often the sound’s pressure wave rises and falls per second. This pressure hits our eardrum, where it is amplified and passed on to our inner ear. There, fine hairs begin to vibrate, which we then perceive as sound.

Both pitch and timeline can vary greatly, depending on how high and how long the particular bird species sings. Some birds, such as blue tits, have very short song units of only 2 seconds, while others, like the male skylark, sing for up to five minutes at a time. Some birds, like the European robin, have a very high-pitched song, others, like the Common raven, have a much lower voice.

In general, it is assumed that young people can perceive sounds between 20 and 16,000 Hz. In children and adolescents, the range often extends to even higher sounds, up to around 20,000 Hz. With age, the perception of high frequencies decreases significantly. Consequently, seniors are often no longer able to hear certain birds at all, or only in a highly distorted form.


During the Dawn Chorus many bird species sing in the foreground and background


The cuckoo’s “song” is relatively simple and low in pitch (similar to human voice range).


The European robin sings much higher notes, and much more complex songs

A single pure tone appears as a thin line from left to right in a sonogram. However, sounds produced by animals are rarely pure and are made up of a complex spectrum. This has to do with how the sound is produced: through vibrations of different body parts. In humans, vocalisations are produced by vocal cords in the larynx. In birds, we find similar structures in the syrinx, and in insects, sounds may be produced by the carapace or wings. These biological structures are always connected to other tissues and structures, which means the resulting sound is hardly ever a pure tone but rather a complex sound pattern. This complexity appears as a cloud along the time axis, and is characteristic to each bird species.

A sonogram that accurately represents the natural sound can only be achieved by high-quality recording instruments, i.e. microphones and recording devices that capture the entire frequency range. Especially with mobile phones, frequencies higher or lower than the normal human voice are often cut off to reduce background noise and file size. To avoid this problem, we developed an app that records sound without any compression, filtering or any other software intervention.

How can I recognise birds by their vocalisations?

Recognizing and learning bird songs is not always easy, but it’s fun! If you just want to listen to different bird species, make sure to visit xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world. For all German-speakers we can recommend the website of our project partner LBV which provides species information  as well as tips and tricks on how to learn to recognize birds by their songs. Our cooperation partner NABU also offers training material for learning bird songs.

Here are a few more international links:

Birdlife International: Why do birds sing? and learn more about birds


Natural History Museum London: Birdsong identification for beginners: 20 common songs and calls

RSPB: Bird song identifier




apps.apple.com/za/app/newmans-birds-of-africa-lite/id730279993 (iOS App – free light version)


As yet, the Dawn Chorus App is not designed to identify bird songs (click here to find out why not, and how can you support us). However, there are several apps that recognize the songs of individual birds quite reliably, such as “Chirp-O-Matic” (Spiny Software) or “BirdNET” (Stephan Kahl). Note: To improve the algorithm’s performance, it is best to provide a GPS position and to avoid background noise or other singing birds in the recording!

How can I help birds?

Here are some tipps and tricks how you can help birdlife, and what to do if you find an injured bird. By making your garden or balcony bird-friendly, you can provide food, shelter and nesting opportunities.

Why we need birds (far more than they need us): https://www.birdlife.org/news/2019/01/04/why-we-need-birds-far-more-than-they-need-us/

Gardens for birds

Creating a wildlife-friendly garden: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/creating-a-wildlife-friendly-garden/

Birds and Gardens (Australia): https://www.birdlife.org.au/australian-birdlife/detail/birds-and-gardens-14

Ultimate Guide to Birdscaping Your Garden: http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/ultimate-guide-to-birdscaping-your-garden.html

How to Make a Bird Friendly Balcony Garden: Plant List: https://birdsdepot.com/a-bird-friendly-balcony-garden/

How to feed birds

https://www.lbv.de/ratgeber/lebensraum-garten/voegel-fuettern/ (German)



How to make a bird feeder: https://plantura.garden/uk/garden-birds/how-to-make-a-bird-feeder

Bird nests

How to protect bird nests: https://www.birdlife.org/news/2021/02/25/how-to-protect-bird-nests-if-you-love-them-leave-them-alone/

How to make a bird box: https://plantura.garden/uk/garden-birds/how-to-make-a-bird-box

Sick and injured birds

Found a sick bird? (Germany) https://www.lbv.de/ratgeber/tier-gefunden/

Sick and injured birds FAQs: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/injured-and-baby-birds/sick-and-injured-birds-faqs/

Found an Injured Bird? Here’s What To Do: https://www.birdwatching-bliss.com/injured-bird.html

How you can help owls and other birds of prey. Owls, kites and other birds of prey are dying from eating rats and mice that have ingested  Second Generation  rodent poisons. (Australia): https://www.actforbirds.org/what-else-can-you-do

Photo credits in chronological order of appearance:

LBV picture archive: robin: Julia Wittmann; Great Reed Warbler: Josef Baumgartner; Blackbird: Frank Derer; Great Tit: Max Kugler; Cuckoo: Herbert Henderkes; Blackcap: Josef Baumgartner

Wolfgang Forstmeier: Wren

Lisa Gill: Spectrogram (Sonic Visualiser 4.0.1)

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