Listen to the birds

The blackbirds and chaffinches drew my attention to this snoozy tawny owl

If you are observant and can read the signs it’s amazing what wildlife can tell you. Here are just three examples of listening and understanding from a couple of my books:

On one occasion when I was detective sergeant I was with a colleague, detective constable Willie Gibson. A man involved in a robbery in Perth had driven off in a car pursued by another two detective officers, but had abandoned the car at the edge of a large wood. Knowing the area well I decided that we would park up in sight of the far side of the wood and just sit quietly and watch. We had been sitting in the car for half an hour or so on this spring afternoon and, as well as keeping a lookout for our robber, I was enjoying the wildlife all around me.

At one point I said to Willie, ‘There’s a cat about Willie.’ ‘How do you know that?’ was his response. ‘I can hear the birds,’ I answered. He probably thought I had gone off my head but there was a chaffinch sounding a steady pink, pink, pink call which is always worth investigating. There was also a blackbird alarming with a regular tak, tak, tak call, a clear indicator of a predator on the ground (its loud and piercing chatter, a completely different alarm call, is reserved for an avian predator).

I continued, ‘The cat’s just over there where that hedge meets that shed.’ ‘Can you see it?’ queried Willie. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but that’s where the birds are telling me it is.’ Willie was anything but convinced and said, ‘Well if there’s a cat appears over there I’ll eat my hat.’ At that a white cat appeared from the end of the shed. Unfortunately Willie didn’t have his hat with him!

And the robber? He was capable of terrorising helpless elderly shopkeepers but he was out of his league in a dark wood on his own. He only ventured into the wood a short distance and was caught within an hour.


This incident relates to one of my walks on a Highland Perthshire Estate while carrying out a wildlife survey for the owner:

I followed the fence line along – the boundary with the estate to the east – and climbed over once I came to Geordie’s Moor. I cut through the junipers and at the end crossed a boggy patch, again sticking to the rabbit hops to ensure I didn’t sink in the bog. The rabbits had developed this safe route over many years and I’d have been daft not to trust to it. I could see two blue tits on top of a blackthorn bush at the side of the drystane dyke separating Geordie’s Moor from the grass field beyond. They were flicking their wings and clearly alarmed. I couldn’t hear them at that point but as I got closer I could hear their tsee tsee tsee alarm calls. Their calls attracted another blue tit and there were now three on top of the bush warning fellow birds and mammals of danger.

I had a good idea what the danger was and made a squeaking sound, sucking with my lips, somewhat (hopefully) resembling a rabbit squealing in distress. Within a few seconds a small brown triangular face, with two dark eyes and an equally dark and shiny nose, poked out of the dyke. Knowing how inquisitive stoats and weasels are, I continued squeaking and he (or she) came out a bit further, resting his front paws on one of the stones to get a better look at me. He was a smart wee chap, with a light brown coat and white belly. He went back into the dyke and re-appeared two or three stones further up, repeating this twice more before giving up on identifying the cause of the squeaking.

Whatever the weasel had been up to – or was going to be up to – the blue tits had given everyone around an early warning.


On yet another day of my survey:

My attention was immediately taken by two new inhabitants of the shooting lodge loch on my arrival at the estate. With the brief glance I had I was sure that new arrivals were Canada geese, and I went on to the veranda of the shooting lodge overlooking the loch to confirm. Sure enough a Canada goose and gander were proudly resting on the island, the gander considerably larger and slightly paler in colour. The four resident mute swans were close by and there seemed to be no animosity with their recently-arrived wildfowl cousins.

As I watched them I became aware of a blackbird chattering behind me in the small conifer wood adjacent to the lodge. I couldn’t see the blackbird, but knew its tone meant an avian predator, probably an owl. Blackbirds in particular are great at letting any observer know what is about – provided of course the observer can read the signs. In contrast to the high-pitched chattering, the blackbird gives a pink pink or tak tak note if it spots a predator such as a cat, stoat or weasel on the ground, with this warning repeated for as long as the danger persists.

I could now see two chaffinches joining in the warning, emitting a similar pinking note, though pitched higher than that of the blackbird. They were nervously flitting about the branches half-way up a sitka spruce tree near the corner of the wood. I went round the lodge to get to the edge of the wood and looked up into the trees. Barely visible, and blending perfectly with the trunk and branches, was a tawny owl. It was tight against the trunk of the tree, and had I not been peering up with some confidence of what would be there I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

With my presence the small birds had gone, their whistle-blowing job done. Having brown feathers streaked down the breast with white, the owl merged perfectly with the dappled shade of the woodland. Its head looked almost as wide as its body, with a creamy white semicircle on each side and a brown stripe down the centre, ending in its beak. Its eyes were firmly shut, and it seemed to be enjoying its siesta despite its raucous and inconsiderate neighbours. This could well have been the owl that I heard in daytime on my visit a mere five days before. I went to the car for my camera and managed to get a few decent photos that rather surprisingly looked as if I were opposite the bird rather than underneath it.


See A Wealth of Wildlife, A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy, plus a free copy of another of my books, The Thin Green Line, contact me on

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