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)

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Recorded in Bath (UK)

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Recorded in Durham (UK)

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Recorded in Leamington Spa (UK)

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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.