The astonishing diversity of great tit song

As I was coming home from work yesterday there was an unmistakable feeling of spring in the air. After what feels like a very long and harsh winter (it dropped to an incredible -16°c for a few days) the sunshine and warmth is certainly welcome.

It’s not just me that’s enjoying the sunshine either. At this time of year the breeding season for great tits (Parus major) really gets going and when the sun shines the males sing as they attempt to attract females to their territories.

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Great tits sing from around February to early June

For some people the first snowdrops mark the start of spring, for others the melting snow or the lengthening days. For me, great tit song signals that spring is on its way and is always a welcome sound.

Great tit song is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature. From February until early June these little birds can be heard singing in fields, parks, woodlands and even in the middle of cities from Ireland all the way to China.

The most common great tit song contains two repeating notes, one high and one low which are said to sound a bit like “tea-cher, tea-tea-cher”. Here is an example I recorded in Derby (UK) a few years ago with a spectrogram below so you can see how it looks.

great-tit-spectrogram-derbyRemarkably however, this is just one of over 70 different calls and songs great tits are known to produce with individual birds having repertoires of up to eight song types. In fact, the great tit’s musical repertoire is so vast that if you hear a bird song you don’t recognise there is a good chance it’s a great tit!

Here a few different variants on the “classic” great tit call I have recorded in the past with spectrograms so you can see the difference.

Recorded in Starnberg (Germany)

great-tit-spectrogram-starnberg

Recorded in Bath (UK)

great-tit-spectrogram-bath

Recorded in Durham (UK)

great-tit-spectrogram-durham

Recorded in Leamington Spa (UK)

great-tit-spectrogram-leamington

In the past I travelled all over the UK recording these birds as part of my research. I have recorded so many great tit songs that I have an almost Pavlovian response whenever I hear one as I feel the need to grab my microphone and start recording. This year however, all I need to do when I hear their song is look forward to longer days and better weather.

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6 thoughts on “The astonishing diversity of great tit song

  1. 70 different calls & songs?!? This seems like a huge number. Is this normal for many birds? (Maybe some have even more?) Your research is in an area we certainly need to know more about — urbanization is happening so fast.

    1. Hi Sally, thanks for your comment! In answer to your question some other bird species also have a lot of different song types. For example,European Nightingales are probably the most impressive singers and have over 100 sog types! However, most species are not like this and only possess a one or a few song types, or sommetimes even none at all.

      1. Well that depends what you call song and what kind of bird you mean!

        The largest group of birds is the passerines which are the songbirds and includes over 5000 species. This groupp can be further split int two groups the oscines or “true songbirds” which is the larger group and includes birds like thrushes, starlings and robins. The other group is the sub-oscines or “tyranni” and includes birds like flycatchers and antbirds.

        Both of these groups can sing but the oscines have much better control of their syrinx than the suboscines do and so can produce much more complex songs.

        However, even amongst the oscines there are birds whose calls might not sound (to us) very song like. For example all corvids are in the oscine group but don’t produce the most beautiful of sounds!

        Finally, there are all the other birds which aren’t in either group (e.g. ostriches, penguins, kiwis etc…) that just don’t sing at all.

        My statement was maybe a bit of an over generalisation but there is certainly huge variation in singing ability in the bird world!

      2. Thanks for this explanation … it sounds like every bird makes “noise”, it just depends on how we humans view it. I like the rather gruff raven calls. Their magpie cousins (at least in Alberta) have a cheery call, especially through an open window early in the morning. 🙂

      3. Oh I agree, it’s all a matter of personal taste and every bird can be appreciated in it’s own way! Corvids are much under appreciated in my opinion. Their intelligence and personalities are amazing to me.

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