The Sound Approach to Birding

The Sound Approach to Birding

5.00 out of 5 based on 11 customer ratings
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The book that started it all. No matter what your level of knowledge, with “The Sound Approach to Birding”, you will enhance your field skills and improve your standards of identification whilst listening to over 200 high quality sound recordings.

Sample Chapter


Bring bird sound to life with The Sound Approach’s pioneering title “The Sound Approach to Birding”. Author Mark Constantine invites you on a journey combining anecdotes, scientific theory and practical field experience.

Our aim is to give you a step-by-step guide through tone, pitch, rhythm, reading sonagrams, acoustics, and using sounds to understand this beautifully unknown world.


11 reviews for The Sound Approach to Birding

  1. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    About ten years ago, I was entering a bird sounds quiz at a conference when a well-known birder stood next to me. He was struggling to get to grips with the sounds we were hearing from the quiz tape and gave up, saying “I don’t do calls!” His defense was pretty pathetic, but not uncommon amongst the birding fraternity. Why is this? When all of us got into birding, one of our shared early lessons in learning bird sounds was the comparison of Blackcap and Garden Warbler songs. At about the same time we probably all went on to learn the calls of Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, and annoyingly similar sounds from Chaffinches and Redstarts. For many birders, their homework on confusing bird sounds stops there. This is not because they do not want to learn more, but simply because almost all of the CDs and cassettes one can buy focus on ‘normal’ sounds. Many do not include call notes and only a few even mention subsong or racial differences. For the Western Palearctic at least, all of that has suddenly changed with the appearance of this book.
    My first exposure to The Sound Approach was a chance meeting with Mark Constantine at the Bird Fair. If you have never met Mark you need to know that he is obsessed with the subject of bird sounds. Having begun recording bird calls as a teenager, I used to think I was keen on the subject of bird sounds, but Mark is in a completely different league. I well remember his excellent paper ‘The challenge of bird sounds’ which was published in 1994 (Birding World 7: 248-255). Mark’s obsession with this subject is probably matched only by Magnus Robb, whose recordings make up the majority of the work. His recordings are augmented by significant contributions from Arnoud van den Berg and Killian Mullarney. With these four working together, it is not surprising that the resultant product is a work of excellence. The book describes every aspect of sounds made by birds, and uses recordings to illustrate the types of call. Musicians understand the true meaning of terms such as timber, pitch and modulation, and these are explained using recordings. Importantly, sonograms are used to illustrate the shapes of the sounds made. I have always ‘seen’ sounds as shapes, although the shapes that I imagine look very different to what is shown on the sonograms. I have always maintained that no matter what shape you see in your head, the first stage in measuring differences in sounds is being able to see the shape. The sonograms presented with these recordings will hopefully alter our perception of what we hear.

    Nearly 200 tracks on the two CDs are of superior quality. Recorded in stereo on the latest digital equipment, these are best listened to using headphones. The tracks would have been easier to navigate had they been is systematic order, but they are organised to illustrate the topics that are being explained in each chapter. The species included are too many to mention, but include valuable recordings of Siberian Chiffchaff, Iberian Chiffchaff, Sykes’ Warbler, Western and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Yellow-legged Gull, Caspian Gull, Mealy Redpoll, Madeiran Kinglet, Tunisian Chaffinch, Blyth’s Pipit, Siberian Stonechat and Taiga Flycatcher. A large section on Crosbill identification goes into incredible detail. This is an area where Magnus Robb has done more research than anyone else, and examples are given of seven dialects in Common Crossbill, plus European and North American races of Two-barred Crossbill, together with Parrot Crossbill and Scottish Crossbill (see ‘The Sound Approach to Crossbills’. Birding World 19: 335-338). The text is written in a somewhat humorous style, with chapter titles such as ‘Sex, seduction and jumping the neighbour’s wife’! Sound buffs will probably find this a bit irritating, but if it encourages birders to engage with challenging bird sound issues then I am all in favour of it. Throughout the book the ‘Sound Approach’ is treated almost like a new religion. The team wanted to create a breakthrough in sound identification in the way that Peter Grant Grant opened our eyes to plumage details when his ‘New Approach to Identification’ series of papers was published in Birding World over twenty years ago.

    There is no question that every serious birder should have this book. It is not expensive, so plenty of copies should be sold. My worry is that, like a new religion, it may take time to gain the support that it deserves. However, one thing is sure: now that this book is here, never again will it be acceptable to say “I don’t do calls”!

    Keith Betton

    Birding World

    Issue No. 243

  2. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    This is a book that steps boldly and bravely into the mucky world of identifying birds by sound. Its aim is very ambitious – to make birders look at bird sounds in a new way, and thus, by implication, to become better at recognising and understanding them.
    Plenty of newly published books claim to take a “new approach” to this and that, often with little supporting evidence that they are doing anything novel. This one, however, which comes with two CDs, is genuinely groundbreaking. Building on the foundations of “The New Approach to Identification” pioneered by Killian Mullarney and the late Peter Grant in the 1980s, in which birders were encouraged to look more closely at bird details and so work out how plumage varied with age and moult (among other things), this book aims to take the same empirical, measured and scientific approach to bird sounds. It does so primarily through presenting bird sounds graphically on the page as “sonograms”, dozens of which adorn the neatly designed pages.

    Sonagrams, in case you didn’t know, are graphs: basically plots of frequency (the pitch if the note/s) against time. As bird sounds vary, so do their patterns on the printed page, which are as distinctive as any plumages. With enthusiasm and loving care, these sonagrams are presented quite beautifully in this book (as well as I have ever seen), and clearly labelled and explained. Since they all correspond to recordings on the accompanying CDs, the authors achieve their aim of making sonograms understandable, and demonstrate how useful they are.

    The book is divided into ten chapters, all on different aspects of bird sounds and their recognition. It begins with three chapters on learning bird sounds, and these are excellent. The next chapters deal with, respectively, the problems of labelling sounds as “songs” or “calls”, with the development of calls and songs as birds grow older, with the functions of song, with mimicry and dialects, and with taxonomy. There is a brief section on playback (playing recordings to birds to get a response), and then a summing up. In these chapters it all gets a little complicated, and many readers will probably give up. That’s not to say that there isn’t good stuff, it’s just pretty heavy. You will have to be seriously interested in the subject to get this far.

    Every important book has its faults, of course. At times the tone in the text gets a little self-important – people did, after all, try to recognise bird sounds before this book came along! The main author also has the incredibly annoying habit of telling us utterly irrelevant information about himself and his mates, as if he were at an award ceremony and was thanking everybody from his agent onwards. This is unnecessary and clogs the text; it almost made me give up before I had really looked at the book. I was also not happy with the sweeping statement : ‘What is not understood is that all passeries include mimcry somewhere in their repertoires…’, which is plainly wrong. The section on the development of Chiffchaff calls was also not convincing, and neither were all the confident statements about plastic song. I think the author(s) should have been a little more careful in reminding us that the understanding of bird sound is very much a work in progress.

    But these are minor quibbles. Overall this book is an important contribution to the subject, written with a highly infectious enthusiasm. The recordings of the CDs are terrific, and there are some that you will undoubtedly never have heard before: all the different sorts of crossbill, for instance.

    I would say, however, that it is really a book for the confirmed enthusiast, who already has a deep passion for the minutiae of bird sounds.

    Reviewed by Dominic Couzens

    BirdWatching March 2007

  3. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    When I first heard about The Sound Approach to Birding I was not particularly interested in reading it, assuming it was just another book, complete with CDs, about bird songs. However, a number of my birding friends spoke very highly of it so I thought it must be worth a closer look. I’m so glad I did not only give it a closer listen, as I think this is the most original bird book I have read in the past decade.
    The two CDs are made for listening while you are reading the book, as they provide acoustic ‘illustrations’ of everything mentioned in the text. I borrowed my daughter’s portable CD player (which had been gathering dust since the arrival of her iPod) and sat back to take full advantage of the ‘sound approach experience.

    The text is written in a very chatty but readable style, and is full of personal anecdotes. It frequently draws on parallel human situations to get a point across, such as adult birds that behave like DJs sampling sounds, then mixing and matching them with whatever is fashionable in that area. The sound example illustrating this is of a population of Blackcaps in Mallorca that have all seemingly sampled and incorporated Great Tit songs into their repertoire.

    The book starts off by describing sound such as tone, timbre, pitch and rhythm, each with clear, understandable examples. I particularly liked the sol-fa scale of frequency ranging from Bittern through to Lesser Whitethroat. Yes, Lesser Whitethroat song has elements that are nearly twice as high in frequency as Goldcrest song, although I can’t say that I have ever detected them in the field (I’ll be listening for them in future, though). I also liked the use of Locustella warblers (Grasshopper, Savi’s, Lanceolated and River) to illustrate differences in both rhythm and pitch.

    As a regular reader of BWP, I have been familiar with sonograms for years, but this s the first time I have eve studied them while actually listening to the sounds. I could not believe how much this brings the boring sonograms to life. For example, the hweet calls of Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Yellow-browed warbler become so much more memorable when you can relate the fall ad rise to the sonograms.

    I have always found separation of the calls of Goldcrest and Firecrest very difficult, but once again the sonograms show how different they are, and also how best to separate them. The interpretive comments on each of the sonograms are also very hopeful for reinforcing the information in the text.

    I cannot imagine there is a single birder in the country who would not benefit from reading this book. I also cannot imagine there would be anyone who would not learn something new. Revelations for me included the fact that Magpies have a pleasant warbling song and that female Dunnocks sing.

    I also now understand why I have usually failed to identify bird songs when they are played down the telephone (a surprisingly frequent occurrence when you work for RSPB) and why I am occasionally wrong-footed by Blackcaps when their separation from Garden Warblers does not usually cause problems. I was also heartened to learn that I am not the only one who has been caught out by Jays imitating Tawny Owls and Goshawks, or by the woodpecker-like kit note at the end of Chaffinch song in Eastern Europe.

    Mimicry is also dealt with rather well. You can listen to the song of a Marsh Warbler full of mimicry, then listen to each mimetic piece alongside the song of the bird being mimicked. The sonograms reinforce the similarity. I was surprised to that most songbirds incorporate mimicry to some degree in their repertoire.

    There is much to fuel potential additions to life lists, for example, European Storm Petrels in Britain and the Mediterranean, and American and European Two-barred Crossbills. The laughing call of American Moorhen (subspecies cachinnans, which means laughing) is markedly different, too, from that of its European counterpart. Then there is the bewildering array of Common Crossbill calls, which are all quite different when you listen to them side by side, although I’m not sure I’d be confident to identify each type without a sonogram.

    Having been rather dismissive of CDs of bird sounds in the past, I must admit that I really enjoyed listening to these. I could close my eyes and be transported to somewhere I had heard these birds myself. The duetting Thrush Nightingales and European Nightjar were particular favourites. Helpfully, all of the background calls are also identified.

    A few of the recordings were amusing too. Try listening to the ‘broadband’ trumpeting of the Trumpeter Finch while looking at the sonogram. It makes me smile every time. The ‘expressive sounds’ of male King Eiders also made me smile, as did the profanities uttered by Magnus Robb when something collapsed while he was recording Ménétrie’s Warbler.

    Having been birdwatching (and listening to birds) for more than 30 years, I felt that my abilities with bird vocalisations had reached a plateau. Being honest, I rather thought there wasn’t much left for me to learn. This book has made me realise just how much I did not know. I feel I can now appreciate and understand bird vocalisations much better and I have already started listening to birds in a different way.

    Tim Melling

    Birdwatch Magazine

    March 2007

  4. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Finally, one new title offered a unique insight into an area of expertise difficult to articulate in print. So while it was no surprise that The Sound Approach to Birding by Mark Constantine and The Sound Approach was accompanied by two CDs (featuring 198 tracks of some 170 species), this instructive book was much more than a vehicle to distribute new recordings. Subtitled ‘A guide to understanding bird sound’, it offers intuitive, constructive advice from a team that understands this complex subject inside out, in the process making it accessible to a much wider birding audience, and the combination of informative text and extensive recordings is a winner in every sense. We thus have pleasure in awarding The Sound Approach to Birding the title of Birdwatch Bird Book of the Year 2006 – congratulations to Mark Constantine and his team, who not only spent thousands of hours in the field making recordings, but also wrote and published the book and CDs. It faced some stiff competition, not least from the highly impressive two-volume Birds of Northern South America, but the many practical benefits it brings to a ‘home’ audience may help win out over the Neotropical expertise of the Helm guide. Nonetheless, the latter fully deserves acclaim too and is our Highly Commended selection for 2006.

  5. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    British Birds
    Have you ever wondered why some Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla are easy to identify on song alone, whereas others seem to sound just like Garden Warblers S. borin? Or have you tried to describe the noises a bird makes for your notes, to other birders or to a rarities committee, but discovered you cannot find the words? Have you ever wondered why playback sometimes works beautifully, but sometimes fails miserably? Baffled by taxonomic decisions based on sounds? Why do vagrants often sing strangely? Still confused about crossbills Loxia? This is the book you have been waiting for.
    The book comes with two CDs, nearly 200 tracks of bird songs and calls, and takes you through them one by one, mostly with accompanying sonograms. It starts by defining the glossary of terms – pitch, timbre, modulation, etc. – then shows you how to ‘read’ a sonogram. Chapters describe how the way a bird sound varies with the conditions of habitat, distance, etc., and again how an individual’s song develops with age. The value of bird vocalisations for unravelling taxonomic relationships is covered, along with problems of dialects, culminating in a head-on treatment of crossbills, and what it all might mean.

    This book fills a hole in the literature for the Western Palearcti birders. There is an almost evangelical tone to the book – I guess that the authors have been on a journey, and their enthusiasm to share their findings with us bubbles out. You cannot fault the content: for example, ‘Northern’ Bulfinches Pyrrhula p. pyrrhula, Iberian Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus ibericus, Syke’s Warbler Hippolais rama, Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis, ‘Siberian Stonechats’ Saxicola torquatas maurus, Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla and (yes) those crossbills are all current identification topics that have really needed sorting out. Well, here they are, and actually much more.

    Nothing like this book has previously existed for birders outside the ‘heavy duty’ literature. It is, of necessity, broad-based and superficial, but provides the vocabulary for all birders to be able to discuss, analyse, interpret, and argue about vocalistaions in the way we currently do about wing-bars and supercilia. Consequently, unless you are very confident about your expertise with birdsong, you probably need to read, and interact with, this book.

    Martin Collinson

  6. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Sunday Express
    Every so often there comes along an exciting innovation that turns birding on its head. New ranges of binoculars, the concept of digi-scoping and the advent of hi-tech rarity alerts have all created fascinating new dimensions for the pastime.
    Books have rarely had such an iconoclastic impact. Most follow traditional formats and rarely push back the boundaries.

    Step forward Mark Constantine and The Sound Approach for bringing us the most important advance birding has seen over the last decade. Their book has opened up a new frontier of field identification.

    The Sound Approach to Birding: A Guide To Understanding Bird Sound deservedly wins this column’s annual award for the best bird book, but to regard the work as ‘just a book’ misses the point.

    The Sound Approach to Birding is more of a credo or an article of faith, encouraging bird-watchers to become bird-listeners. Any experienced birder would admit that their ears are as important as their eyes when it comes to finding and identifying birds in the field. Invariably, most birds announce their presence through their vocal repertoire. Whether a bird is giving a full-throated song or simply emitting a short flight note, a good fieldsman will be able to put a species name to it on the scantest of audible clues. For too many birders, however, ears are something to hang spectacles on rather than being a valuable tool in their own right. Take a few moments browsing through the book and you will soon be drawn into a world where every noise a bird makes is an important and fascinating step in understanding any species.

    By comprehending bird sounds it is possible to not only identify a species but also age and sex individuals. Indeed, some of the most important work in uncovering potentially new species has come by detecting nuances between calls. Crossbills are a great example of the advances being made. Rather than just four species of crossbill in Europe – common, parrot, two-barred and Scottish – there may well be as many as seven others, each with distinctive call notes.

    But how do we fine-tune our listening to separate something as delicate as a crossbill flight call? The book takes us on a step-by-step journey, helping readers to understand what is meant by pitch, rhythm and tone and also how to understand sonograms – bizarre sound charts.

    Besides being lavishly illustrated and well-designed, the book also comes with two audio CDs with more than 200 recordings of bird songs and calls.

    Constantine and The Sound Approach team (Arnoud van den Berg and Magnus Robb) deserve every praise for taking birding into the 21st century.

    Stuart Winter, Sunday Express

    December 17th 2006

  7. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Considering the universal appeal of birdsong, and the phenomenal quantity of birding literature which is published each year, it seems suprising that bird calls are, by and large, marginalised by authors. The phoentic notes often included in field guides consistently appear to be little more than afterthoughts on behalf of the authors to placate the reader rather than to actually help them identify birds auditorially. Consequently, The Sound Approach to Birding is an indispensible title for all birders, as it describes the ins, outs, how and whys of understanding bird calls in more than adequate detail. Thankfully, it is also written with a good deal of humour and personability which makes it an enjoyable read as well.
    Birding beginners will find that after a couple of chapters of this book they will have the knowledge to show up more seasoned individuals, whilst experienced bird watchers will find this book fills in many vital gaps in their understanding of birds. Add to all of this 2 CDs of beautifully recorded bird calls from around the world and you’ve got a pretty special book. It’s education, but not as we know it.

  8. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Oryx Online
    The world of birding has radically changed since the 90s, with the emergence of a new series of field guides that bring new approaches and techniques to identification. In particular, the most important titles are the two MacMillan books (The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification, which recognises the possible confusion between European species, and The Macmillan birder’s guide to European and Middle Eastern birds, which extends the previous book to include birds not mentioned in the first title), Lars Jonsson’s fantastic guide (European Birds etc.) and the culmination of all previous work in the definitive ‘Guide to Birds: The comprehensive field guide to birds of Spain and Europe’ by Lars Svensson and co-authors. There have been many advancements in the field of European field identification and these books will be of value for decades to come.
    Nevertheless, one of the most important aspects of the field of identification, being able to recognise birdsong, is something that only a minority of field ornithologists have perfected, because they have a special interest in the area. Despite there being more and more guides dedicated to identifying birdsong on the market at the moment – some including very specific works such as that dedicated to warblers by Geoff Sample, in his Collins field guide: warbler songs and calls, or more general books dealing with a great number of songs such as those featured in BWPi: Birds of the Western Palearctic on Interactive DVD-ROM, both of which are great works, there was no book that, using a didactic format and with an instructive focus, tried to teach ornithologists how to improve identification of birdsongs, step by step, until finally they could interpret sonograms.

    Without doubt, the work being reviewed here, The Sound Approach to birding, is a fabulous book which will be useful before and after for many of those who, with patience and dedication, are trying to improve their skills of identification in the field of birdsong. Magnificently edited, with large colour photographs, both the birds and the environments in which their songs were recorded – which accompany the book on a 2 CD set, enclosed within – are very high quality as well as the photos of the authors in different places around the globe, their recording equipment and them in action, and also colour illustrations by Killian Mullarney.

    The two CDs include the songs of 200 species, although the objective is not to demonstrate the songs of Palearctic birds but to illustrate the sound that the book describes. Chapter by chapter, cases are examined and it is explained what the ornithologist needs to focus on: ascents of tone in similar notes, pauses between syllables, timbre, duration of the voice/song, etc… The case studies on the CDs and in the text divide into distinct groups. Examples: calls of Pluvialis squatarola, P apricaria, P dominica and P fulva, show that it is possible to identify them all by their voices, something that will certainly please beginners; the different sounds of the subspecies of the Common Chiffchaff and those from the Iberian Chiffchaff; the difference in the number of notes per different second that Locustella make and how that allows us to confidently identify them, between those that make more notes per second, the luscinioides, to those who make less, fluviatilis, showing the gradation between them and with the other ones, naevia and lanceolata; the flight calls of the crossbills, and their variations; and current ‘burning issues’ like the ‘trompet’ call of the nominate subspecies of the Bullfinch, in comparison to the ‘normal’ European call. Many case studies and many examples allow a deepening of knowledge about a subject that, without doubt, is of interest to the majority of field ornithologists. In conclusion, it is a book that inspires, written in an informal yet rigorous tone, with wonderful illustrations and a clear teaching approach. Highly recommended, before it sells out – especially as it is written by such great authors.

    José Luis Copete

  9. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Comprising two CDs and a substantial hardback book, The Sound Approach to Birding opens up a new world to birders who ‘don’t do calls’ – and expands to the horizon of those who do. In this ground-breaking publication, Mark Constantine and his team at The Sound Approach not only provide a guide to understanding bird sound, but also demonstrate in fascinating detail exactly how calls can be used to heighten our appreciation of birdlife and, in many cases, separate species that are visually almost identical.
    With 99 tracks apiece, the CDs progressively ‘illustrate’ the text (in addition to the superb colour photographs and Killian Mullarney’s evocative artwork). Accompanied by a written track description and in most cases a sonogram, sound bites provide an audio example of differences in pitch and tone, for instance, or even exactly how a Marsh Warbler mimics Blackbird, Great Tit, Red-backed Shrike and European Bee-eater! Of particular interest are the sound comparisons of different crossbills. Author Mark Constantine writes in a very personal and laid-back style, inviting the reader – and listener – to join him and The Sound Approach team as they travel the world making recordings. He also makes a case for the judicious use of recordings in the field. This is without doubt the new benchmark for understanding bird sounds, regardless of the ability of the listener. Enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of birds with The Sound Approach to Birding, and open your ears to a whole new world.

  10. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5


    Review by Brian J Small (brian At
    I consider myself, somewhat modestly, as fairly good at bird sounds. I am not brilliant and know a number of people who are far better at hearing them and then computing the sound with a memory of a bird in their head – some have rather large ears. I have consciously tried to improve my knowledge over the years, particularly as I have been able to travel a little, but since I have got this book, I can see both that I have an awful lot more to learn, and that there is still a whole new world and meaning to those sounds that I need to hear and learn and appreciate.

    Mark Constantine and the other members of the Sound Approach – Arnoud van den Berg and Magnus Robb – have put together a fabulous and inspiring book. As an attempt to ‘popularise the sound approach’ to birds it succeeds admirably, and certainly more than ‘provides the vocabulary and biological background to bridge the gap between bird sounds and the much better known visual aspect of birding’. Having been lucky enough to have traveled with Arnoud, I am more than aware of his enormous enthusiasm for the subject, and this book wonderfully expresses it.

    The book comes with two CDs, containing a number of recordings, but it is not meant to be a guide to all the bird sounds of Europe or wherever – it is also spattered with great photos and many exciting paintings by Killian Mullarney. Rather it aims to demystify various aspects of listening to birds. The book and the CDs open with evocative calls of Grey and golden plovers then goes onto the sound spectrum of bird sounds – put some earphones on and listen to the Bittern booming, the Cuckoo resonating through the woodland in Poland, or the Redshanks calling, close your eyes and you are there, on Texel with Eiders displaying in the background. Each recording is listed in the text, with the place, date, sometimes time; plus the species you can hear in the background. Many of the recordings are reproduced with minimal or no manipulation – there is a code that explains the amount.

    Each recording has a relevance to the text, which deals with many aspects of bird sounds, often using recordings to help train the ear to listen for the subtle differences between similar species. Take for example the calls of Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff and Iberian Chiffchaff. On pages 26 and 27 we are treated to a wonderful explanation of their calls, complete with sonograms, and how to tell them apart. The text is written in a friendly style, slightly joky – maybe not to the liking of some – but it expresses the enthusiasm of the authors for bird sounds and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) hide just how much you are learning.

    Though the scope of this book is limited to some extent to the birds within the Western Palearctic, its significance and the ways to listen to bird sounds is wide-ranging. There are some subjects dealt with that are a little more ‘sexy’ than others, and I immediately went for the flight calls of Richard’s, Tawny and Blyth’s Pipits; Blyth’s Reed and Marsh Warblers; Sykes’s and Booted Warblers – the repetition of notes in the Sykes’s (and just how different the two songs were) was enlightening.

    Bird identification and taxonomy has historically tended to focus on the way a bird looks – its plumage or structure – but actually it is becoming all too obvious that for many it is the way it sounds that is of equal or more importance. Take, for example the Scytalopus tapaculos in South America, which are in appearance all rather similar, but in voice significantly different. The habitat in which they live, dense moist forest, precludes their need for gaudy plumage, but does mean that subtle differences in voice are of vital importance – and as a result many forms are now being ‘split’ as new species.

    Just how important the sound approach is, and the value it will have in future ‘bird ID problems, is amply expressed in the very last chapter. This deals with the conumdrum of the trumpeting calls of Bullfinches heard in western Europe in recent autumns. The call has been thought to be indicative of Northern Bullfinches, but without too much conviction borne of lack of experience. Through sonograms and recordings the authors show that the call does not exist outside of Northern Bullfinches and so ‘it is diagnostic’.

    Finally, I have just treated myself to listening to the crossbill recordings. I have to admit that I found this testing, going back and forward through the recordings in an attempt to hear the differences between, for example ‘British’ and ‘Parakeet’ Crossbills, and comparing the sound heard with the sonogram – the authors use a whole range of names to identify different calliung crossbills, ‘Parakeet’, ‘British’, ‘Wandering’, ‘Bohemian’ (doesn’t bohemian mean wandering?), ‘Glip’, ‘Scarce’, ‘Phantom’ alongside Scottish and Parrot. This is a new ball game for me and I wonder if I would cope in the field with these different sounds – it will certainly need a lot of training, but with this book as a starting point I feel that I might be able to go on.

    There is so much more this book than I can deal with in a review of it. This book is an inspiration, the recordings are wonderful, the text educational and fun to read. I cannot recommend it too highly. BUY it and buy it now!

    Brian Small

  11. 5 out of 5
    Rated 5 out of 5



    I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed, entertained and enlightened.

    It argues that the beauty of sonograms is that it gives a visual picture of bird sound that allows all of us to see what it is we should be listening for to distinguish two sounds. The description of a Willow Warbler call as being ‘longer and more disyllabic’ than that of a Chiffchaff really does make a lot more sense, and is easier to remember, when you can see what the two calls look like on a sonogram. And when you also compare the calls of Siberian and Iberian Chiffchaffs you can see from the sonograms exactly how different they ought to sound.

    So, this book takes on the task of trying to explain to all of us how to read and understand sonograms. This could be incredibly dull but here it is made much more entertaining thanks to two things: an accompanying CD so we can hear the sounds that are illustrated in the sonograms and a terrifically readable text by Mark Constantine. He has the zeal of an evangelist so his descriptions ooze with enthusiasm for his subject. He not only loves bird sounds but he wants everyone to share the excitement he’s found through the interpretation of sonograms. I think birders will love the background information he gives about many of the recordings on the disk; who recorded it, where, when, what the place was like, what difficulties had to be overcome etc. We not only read about the birds and their sounds but also about the exploits of people like Magnus Robb, Killian Mullarney and Arnoud van den Berg in their quests to get these recordings.

    The book also takes us into new avenues that become possible when we study bird sounds in such detail; like whether we can age Chiffchaffs by their calls or whether there are many species of Crossbills in Europe, all with different calls. Fascinating stuff.

    Mark is convinced that if only we could all read sonograms, we’d learn so much more about how to identify bird sounds and give ourselves a whole new vocabulary, beyond ‘choo-choo-choo’, with which to describe the differences. He hopes this will give us a breakthrough in bird sound identification similar to that brought about by the late Peter Grant when his ‘New Approach’ led us to be so much more aware of how to identify and describe the different feather-tracts and understand the different moult sequences. He could be right. His argument is certainly convincing and his book definitely achieves its aim of making sonograms more easily understood by all of us.

    The book is a terrific read and deserves to be bought by any birders who want to take their sound identification a whole leap further forward. I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed, entertained and enlightened by a birding product. Birders everywhere should get this.

    Dave Gosney

    Thursday 31 August 2006

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