YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)

Bruant jaune

As all three of the names I give suggest - there is a lot of yellow in this species ! (The term "hammer" is said to be a corruption of the German "ammer" meaning bunting - nothing to do with the implement). The male takes on a brilliant yellow head and breast during the breeding season, with just a few dark markings on the side of the head, the female is more of a yellowish-brown colour, quite streaked all over. In Switzerland it is present all year and is essentially a bird of lowland areas being most common from 500-800m although it can extend up to 1400m. It is therefore most common on the northern plain and in recent years is now more common in the alpine valleys than previously.

The basic song of this bird is a series of rapid chattered notes followed by a long wheezy "tsee" - in English the rendition "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeese" is commonly applied to it, but actually the song is quite variable and rarely if ever do you hear one with exactly the correct rhythm:

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The pattern is quite clear in the sonogram:

But as I say the song is very variable, a common variation in Switzerland is for the base phrase to be followed by a high-pitched note, this does seem to be a central European feature - in Britain I believe these last two notes are reversed:

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You can see these additional notes in the first and third phrases of this sonogram, a very high note starting at about 7.5Khz descending to about 6Khz. The stutter in the second phrase was done by the bird, its not an artifact of the recording - and it gives you an idea of the sort of thing that can go on:


Another common variant is that the song is left incomplete and the "cheeeeeese" notes are dropped or curtailed, and also listen how the phrases here are occasionally of a lower tone:

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I have seen and heard the same bird mix all these variations up in the same singing session. These songs are also reminiscent for me of hot summer days - it can be baking sunshine in July and August and the Yellowhammers seem to be only ones left singing - which they normally do from the top of an exposed perch, shining out like a yellow beacon. One reason for this may be as follows: Yellowhammers will lay several clutches of eggs in one season and the males use song as one way to prevent rival males from mating with "their" female. This extended multi-clutch season and the protection of their mates may be why we hear Yellowhammers singing later than other species.

You may have noticed that in the above samples you also heard various buzzes and "tsip" notes in between the song phrases - these are calls, and again the Yellowhammer seems to have a lot of them. The commonest one that I come across is:

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A noise I describe as its "buzz" call (the timing is shortened a little in the sonogram to save download time):


Cramp and Perrins describe this as an alarm call and my sonograms match very well with theirs in the book, but I am honestly not sure - I have always taken it as a general contact call as I hear it so often from birds who do not seem at all alarmed !

On the other hand this last recording was taken form a bird I recorded in Normandy which did seem agitated or excited as it perched on the branch of a tree and flew off shortly after the recording:

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If you listen carefully you can hear the buzz I showed above, plus some higher notes and more abbreviated buzzes (and I am sorry there is a Chaffinch making its "wink" calls in the background also).

But have a look at the sonogram and you will see what I mean:


and I will provide below a still key to the sounds I hear, try and open the moving sonogram and look at the still image below at the same time. The "buzz" is the call we heard before, this seems to then get shortened into the "trsp" sound, and even shorter into the "chip" - this latter is apparently a flight call which can also be given perched - the very high pitched "tszeee" is a call (it starts at more than 9Khz so older easr may not hear it) I have not seen referenced and really have no idea as to its purpose, maybe another element of an alarm call.

 

 

 

CIRL BUNTING (Emberiza cirlus)

Bruant zizi

The Cirl Bunting is mostly sedentary in Switzerland, it is essentially a lowland species most frequent up to about 600m but can occur higher. It is sparsely distributed mostly along the bottom of river valleys in the north and west and even then it favours the sunny southern-facing slopes. The head markings make it quite a pretty bird in a good view.

The French name comes from its rather monotonous song, a sort of rattling trill. But having said the sound is monotonous, like its close relative the Yellowhammer there are a remarkable number of variations to be heard - but all more or less of the same theme and quality. I will below give you a sample of those I have come across - but be warned Cramp and Perrins quote a study of more than 2000 song samples which showed up more than 60 variations with individual birds being able to sing between 1-6 song types ! So it can get a bit of a mess I suppose. However all the songs I have found are of the same basic character and readily recognisable. As stated the general character is a rattling trill lasting just a few seconds, with a longish pause and then repeated - a lot !!

Below each sample I will show a still shot of one phrase from the sonogram (the phrases are too long and fast to make a good movie from them). Each of the stills is captured from one original long sonogram so all the notes are set to the same sized axes even if the shots appear a slightly different sizes on your screen (the challenges of uploading precise images to the Internet I'm afraid !).

The first is a very commonly heard call - quite mellow in some ways, maybe because each is a sort of "double note", delivered at about 9 per second:

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and here is another (from the same bird) that is of a rather "drier" more brittle character, see that each is a single note, delivered a bit faster, about 13 per second:

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here is a bird that delivered notes at a faster rate about 16 per second also with a rather "dry" quality:

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and here is another that seemed slower and more deliberate about its approach, delivery was about 10 per second and this looks like a more compound note (which sounds "softer" to my imagination) more similar to the first one:

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All of these have very slight and subtle differences as can be seen in the individual sonograms, although I cannot really explain how the shape and the sounds actually link together. The only patterns I can see are that the "softer" more "mellow" sounds (first and fourth) seem compound notes of several elements which are delivered more slowly (maybe as a consequence of the complexity ?), and the "drier" more "rattly" sounds (second and third) seem simpler in structure and delivered faster.

Here is a compilation of all four one after the other starting with the first one on this page and working through the rest in the order presented:

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You can pick out the differences by ear - but they are rather difficult to describe.

If you have looked at the Yellowhammer page you would have found that the third call there describes a variant which is just the introductory trill - this sounds quite similar to the Cirl Bunting and could perhaps be confused with it - however the Yellowhammer has a brighter more ringing tone to it, compared with the rather dry rattle of the Cirl Bunting, here is a sonogram of two phrases from each (with time intervals much shortened) to compare the two - Cirl Bunting first Yellowhammer second:

For the sonogram I chose call number one, that seems to me the closest to the Yellowhammer, but even so the dry rattle of the Cirl Bunting is quite different form the more buzzy ring of the Yellowhammer.

 

 

 

REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Bruant des roseaux

 

As the name implies this is a bird of marshlands and reed beds, so it is normally found in Switzerland below 700m where reeds survive on the margins of lakes and rivers and occasionally in rank grass and shrublands, but always marshy areas. For many years such prime habitat has been regarded as "wasteland" by most countries of the world and only good for draining and reclamation, so the area of available habitat for birds like this has shrunk enormously. No more so than here in Switzerland where flat land is at a premium for agriculture and infrastructure. So Reed Buntings are found only in rather special places where marshes still survive.

The female Reed Bunting is a rather drab streaky brown bird, but the male is quite attractive, his black head and throat over the top of his white collar is very visible at a distance, especially since he often chooses to let forth his song from an exposed perch.

The song of the Reed Bunting is quite catchy and carries a long way. Like all Buntings it varies, but less so than others you will find on this site (i.e. Yellowhammer or Cirl Bunting ).The general pattern to look for is 2-4 rather bright, squeaky notes followed by a short trill, like this:

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I edited a section out of the middle of that, but it was all the same bird. The pattern is easily seen on the spectrogram:

I have not studied it carefully but different birds seem to have their own way of interpreting the pattern which they then seem to stick with, here is another that is both different but the same and so identifiable:

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(That was a Great Reed Warbler clammering away in the background) once again the pattern is unmistakable:

I have one recording of the call, a rather plaintive "tsui" call descending rapidly in pitch from about 8Khz to 4Khz in the space of about a third of a second:

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Cramp and Perrins say this call can be used both for contact between adults and as an alarm call.

CORN BUNTING (Miliaria calandra)

Bruant proyer

As the name implies this rather dull, streaky seed-eating bird is basically a grassland species that has adapted well to the grain crops that we grow. It is distributed throughout Europe as far east as Kazakhstan and can reach impressive numbers in some parts. Despite the apparent availability of food in agricultural areas it is a species that has undergone a decline in recent decades, the reason for this is not completely clear but is undoubtedly linked to changes in farming practises, including timing of crops, removal of weed species and perhaps loss of insects which they also need in their diet. The map of the distribution of this species show a "hole" around Switzerland and Austria where it is clearly a lot less common than elsewhere - not sure why this is but could be related to the altitude of these countries. In Switzerland it can be found in every month, but the largest numbers occur in the breeding season and also during the autumn migration. Even so it is very thin on the ground, only occurring in the lowest areas around 600m, and even then in only a few places, so it is limited to the plains in the north and a few major river valleys. As in other countries numbers have declined in recent times.

Corn Buntings can be polygamous, one male may mate with up to 3 females, rarely the other way round. To defend his territory and maybe his harem too the males will sing from fence posts, wires or medium sized trees and so are usually easily visible. The song is a somewhat monotonous rattle that tends to accelerate like a bouncing table tennis ball rising slowly in pitch throughout. The most common description is of someone rattling a bunch of keys - but that takes a bit of imagination in my view. Here is one in the grasses at the edge of an insect and frog infested marsh in mid-summer:

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and this is how two phrases (the space between shortened) look in the sonogram:

The wavy line through these sonograms at 5 Khz is the stridulation of a nearby grasshopper, if you listen carefully you can detect it - unfortunately it coincides almost exactly with the fundamental frequency of the bird call and theoretically could be a problem for it.

Now, you can see from the sonogram that about 75% of the way through each phrase things begin to get complicated - just where the sounds become really rapid, so let's zoom in on that in a bit more detail and look at just one call:

 

This is all a bit fast, let's look at the still of the phrase:

 

 
The black area from 7.3 to 7.8 secs (note that is only half a second in timing) clearly has some complex things going on there - so let's focus in on it a bit closer:

 

Unfortunately that does not help as there is so much going on in such short spaces of time that it all becomes too murky to understand, and anyway what do all these funny shapes actually mean in sounds ?

In his book of bird songs and calls Geoff Sample suggests that if it is played at a slow speed the detail in this part of the song becomes more apparent. Now if you slow down these songs the tone drops as you alter the frequency of playback, but the pattern becomes more understandable to our ears as everything happens more slowly. So let's give it a go - here is one phrase played at one-fifth of normal speed - check what happens in that short half-second of complexity:

During that little space of time the vocal apparatus of the Corm Bunting is working overtime, but other Corn Buntings probably can detect that detail and get information out of it - this is the wondrous thing about animal communications - a human nervous system only gives us access to part of what is going on. Here the singer must have the nervous and muscular abilities to make such rapid changes in singing and the listener has to do the reverse - detect the changes and have the nervous system in the ears tell the brain what is coming in and the brain then to process it.

For other examples of this high speed communication see also the Wren or Savi's Warbler

 

 

 

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