Birding By Ear: Urban Birds of Europe

There you are: jet-lagged and in a park near your hotel, before dawn, binoculars in hand. It’s the beginning of your European vacation and your family is still passed out upstairs.


How nice of you to let them sleep.

As the morning begins to brighten in Paris (or maybe London, or Berlin) an unfamiliar dawn chorus begins to emerge from the greenery around you.

Maybe you studied your European field guide a little on the flight over but, as you know, every bird in the world has an unique vocalization and knowing that Common Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler are differentiated by leg color is of little use to you now, in this dim light.

Are you new to “birding by ear”? No worries, it’s never been easier.

Using reference CD’s and MP3’s from websites like, create a playlist of the most common birds in your area. Play it on your commute to work, at your computer, or at the gym, until the songs become familiar to your ears. Now, when you next encounter the dawn chorus in full force, you can mentally sort the sounds you recognize, and focus on the ones you don’t. Chase down a couple new sounds and, once you visually identify the species, add them to your playlist.

You are now developing a mental reference library for bird sounds, and you might be surprised at how quickly new sounds will “catch.” You’ll remember new sounds by comparing them against the catalog you’re building. For example, you’ll note that the song of Purple Finch has the same liquid-like quality of a House Finch but it sings shorter, distinct phrases and lacks the upslurred end that House Finches often broadcast.

“Well, that’s helpful and all,” you interrupt, “but I’m still in Europe and I have no idea what I’m hearing.”

Don’t worry—this technique can still help elsewhere in the world. I’ve compiled a short reference of most common urban birds in Europe to help you prepare for your European vacation. Have a listen: some may sound quite similar to common birds back home.



Common Blackbird

May remind you of: American Robin

Blackbirds don’t have “yellow heads” or “red wings” in Europe, in fact this plain black bird with a yellow bill is in the same genus as the American Robin: Turdus. Appropriately, most of its vocalizations, from song to alarm call, are reminiscent of the vociferous songster you likely have in your backyard, albeit a bit more languorous, inebriated even.


© Andreas Trepte




Song Thrush

May remind you of: Northern Mockingbird

Another member of the turdus genus, the Song Thrush more closely resembles our own Swainson’s or Hermit Thrush. But once it opens its beak, expect a song similar to a Northern Mockingbird: short, distinct, discordant phrases repeated in two’s and three’s.


© Andreas Trepte




Eurasian Wren 

May remind you of: Winter/Pacific Wren

Hear a sweet, frantic song similar to your Winter Wrens back home? Well, up until 2010, it was the same species. But the wren you hear now—the Eurasian Wren—is its own species, and the only wren found outside the Americas.


© Andreas Trepte




Common Chaffinch

May remind you of: House Finch

This boisterous singer can be heard in green-spaces throughout urban Europe. The song is crisp, “chippy”, and descends in pitch, but not in strength. When I first arrived in Paris, I likened it to the song of a House Finch, a common urban vocalist in North America. Their call—a “pink-pink”—is also quite distinctive (the recording below features the song in the foreground, with the call in the background).


© Ian Cleland





May remind you of: Golden-crowned Kinglet

It sure looks like a Golden-crowned Kinglet (it’s in the same genus) and yup, it sounds like one, too. If you are near conifers and hear some small twittering coming from the canopy, you can bet it’ll be a flock of Goldcrests, a.k.a. the kinglets with goggles.


© Oiseauxvendee




European Greenfinch

May remind you of: Pine Siskin

Hearing the slurred end notes that remind you of a Pine Siskin? Well, Pine Siskins go ↑UP↑ and the European Greenfinch goes ↓down↓. The song of the greenfinch is a bit “goldfinch-like” but they are often in large flocks so the down-slurred notes are easy to point out.


© Andreas Trepte




Great Spotted Woodpecker

May remind you of: Downy Woodpecker

This common urban woodpecker has a call similar to the “pik” of a Downy Woodpecker, although much louder and more resonant. The Great Spotted Woodpecker, however, is closer in size to a Hairy. Green Woodpeckers—the second most commonly occurring urban “pecker”—has a boisterous, laughing call, so if you hear something that sounds like a woodpecker back home, it’s most likely a Great Spotted. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is possible, but much less common: listen for a soft, descending whinny similar to a Downy.


© Darrel Birkett




Short-toed Treecreeper

May remind you of: Brown Creeper

The “creepers” of Europe maintain the same soft, fluting, liquid-like songs of the Brown Creeper back home. Are you in the U.K.? You’re hearing the long, descending song of a Eurasian Treecreeper. On mainland Europe, you can be hearing Eurasian or the more upbeat, ascending song of a Short-toed Treecreeper.


Short-toed Treecreeper © Jimfbleak





Other Common European Birds


Common Chiffchaff

This widespread phylloscopus warbler has one of the most distinctive songs in Europe: a continuous string of single notes that quickly jump up and down the octave scale. If you watch any European programming that requires the use of bird sounds, you might find him there, too. A few of the audio samples highlighted on this page have Common Chiffchaff somewhere in the background as well.


© Hans Hillewaert




Eurasian Blackcap

While a plain warbler in appearance, the Blackcap is anything but once it open its beak. Its beautiful song has the length and intricacy of a Winter Wren, the vocal variety of a European Starling, and the boldness of a Northern Mockingbird. Fortunately for visiting birders, they are vocal and widespread in spring and summer, and respond quickly to pishing.


© Jakub Stančo




European Robin

The song of the European Robin is high and melodious one second, and wheezy the next. To me, it sounds like the male is struggling to get his song out as he inhales and exhales laboriously.


© Pierre-Selim Huard




European Serin

This urban canary—literally, it’s in the same genus as the wild ancestor to the popular cage bird—doesn’t have the lyrical chops of its fellow Serinus. To me, its song is continuous, metallic chatter, similar in quality to an Anna’s Hummingbird. They are boisterous singers, though, which makes them easy to find. Don’t expect to find them in London, however, as this species is absent on the British Isles.


 © Armin März




European Goldfinch

The song of this handsome dandy is a continuous, and often quiet, string of trills and chatter, similar to that of the American Goldfinch. Also like its American counterpart, it’s most easily identified by its call, which it freely interjects into its song: an upslurred “te-LITT.”


 © Pierre Dalous




Eurasian Nuthatch

The only audible similarity that this nuthatch shares with the Red-breasted in the States is how unique its call is in its respective habitat. To my ears, it sounds like a scolding water drop. And when it decides to call, it will do so quite adamantly, thus making them easy to locate.


© Luc Viatour





The Tits (A few of them at least)



Great Tit

The Great Tit has one of the richest vocabularies of any European bird—nearly 40 different call types at last tally—but considering it’s also one of the common urban species, if you hear a bird that you don’t recognize during your outing, chances are good that it’s a Great Tit. Song is usually a see-sawying, ringing, two syllable little diddy.


© Luc Viatour




Eurasian Blue Tit

The second most common tit, if not the second most common species, the Eurasian Blue Tit has a four part song: “DEE-DEE-d-d-d-d-d-DEE-DEE-d-d-d.” The quality is higher and more piercing than that of the Great Tit. Start pishing at any urban green space and you’ll have the chance to hear its scolding call in person, after the Great Tits have come to investigate, of course.


© Maximilian Dorsch




Long-tailed Tit

Similar in proportion to Bushtits, though larger and more boldly colored, the Long-tailed Tit is readily identifiable by voice. Listen for the very quick, descending, scolding call and wait for the flock to pass through.


© Jos Dielis




Marsh Tit

The Marsh Tit will most closely resemble North American chickadees of the tits mentioned here and I find, personally, that its call is one of the most distinct: a quick, ascending two-note “pi-CHAY.”


© Sławomir Staszczuk


Already mastered these species or have a specific target bird you are looking for? Use to find crowd-sourced recordings that you can download to your computer.




Crapping on Napoleon’s Head

Carved in stone or forged in metal, statues are designed to make generation of people stop, gaze upward in awe, and reflect on someone who liberated/reigned/invented/ruled/fought/decreed/conquered themselves in to a pivotal moment in the evolution of a country or culture.

A statue is an eternal reminder that all who pass underneath should be forever indebted to the greatness this person bestowed on history.

Or maybe it’s just an easy place for a bird to take a crap.

I’ve recently noted the subtle humor in how many of the world’s statues, which depict the powerful men and women in chiseled greatness, are now little more than a perch on which a bird can take a momentary break from the shackles of gravity and relieve itself of the weight of its breakfast.

Imagine a self-aggrandizing ruler – a dictator perhaps – commissioning an imposing representation of himself, forged in metal, to loom over his fearful subjects as a constant reminder of his Draconian rule. Well, place a pigeon directly on top of his head and that foreboding presence dissipates as quickly as the whitewash running down his iron cheek.

I have had several opportunities to photograph birds on statues in Europe. Maybe it’s because Europe has a long, eventful history formed by powerful people. Maybe Europe has especially productive ironworkers and stone masons. Or maybe it’s because Europe is home to some particularly irreverent birds.


Zurich, Switzerland

On top a large, muscular stallion with a well-worn battle axe at his side, Hans Waldmann—15th century mayor of Zurich—could do little to dissuade this insolent Black-headed Gull. The bird was fortunate that this depiction of the Swiss military leader had a head on which to perch; Waldmann was relieved of his in 1489, due to accusations of financial corruption and sodomy.




Prague, Czech Republic

The neck of St. Ludmilla buckles under the weight of two complacent Eurasian Jackdaws. This statue is one of thirty lining Charles Bridge, a top tourist destination in Prague. While patron saint of many things—including converts, duchesses, Czech Republic, problems with in-laws—corvids and avian excrement are not listed among them.




Prague, Czech Republic

A Rock Pigeon cranes its neck pensively a top a statue of Joseh Jungmann, widely regarded as the creator of the Czech language and phrases like Slez z mé zasrané hlavy! (“Get off my bleeping head!”)




Prague, Czech Republic

The perfectly coiffed coils of Jan Hus are too irresistible to the dirty feet of this Rock Pigeon, who returns the favor by looking unabashedly in an opposing direction. Huss’ resisted the Catholic Church by insisting to preach in the native vernacular instead of mandated latin, a heresy that had him burned at the stake and the catalyst for the Hussite Wars between Catholics and Protestants. Hus became a symbol of strength for the Czech people as they suffered under oppressive regimes throughout history, including Habsburgs, Russians, Communists, and now, Guano.




Prague, Czech Republic

Neither his proximity to cultural icon Jan Hus, nor the fact that he was exiled during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, nor his smooth, bulbous dome spared this gentleman from the ignominious talons of a pair of Rock Pigeons.




Versailles, France

A Black-headed Gull oblivious to the angel directly beneath it—unperturbed by her much larger wings. Perhaps the gull feels vindicated by dominating a statue at the entrance of one of the most opulently-decorated castles in the world. Gulls hate extravagant excess. Unless it involves french fries.




Vienna, Austria

Neither the armor depicted in this statue, nor the plumes that could have come from a distant cousin, could scare away this Hooded Crow. Instead this disinterested corvid casts an aloof gaze from this 18th century perch down on to the 1,441 room Schönbrunn Palace beneath it. Maybe the crows are the ones who literally defaced this statue and replaced it with a log. Crafty birds.





Marseille, France

A Yellow-legged Gull barely musters a yawn as Jesus Christ – the inspiration for one of the world’s most prolific religions – coils in pain directly underneath him. The bird doesn’t much care for the expansive view of France’s second largest city directly behind it, nor the fact that Jesus’ consoler is buckling under its weight, pushing her face directly on to his crown of thorns.




Pisa, Italy

A male pigeon struts amorously towards a female on the back of the Capitoline Wolf, a statue that depicts the founding of Rome. Most wouldn’t consider a metallic depiction of twin babies suckling from the plump teet of a she-wolf to be a powerful aphrodisiac, but pigeons are perhaps the most sexually-depraved of any bird.




Seville, Spain

The powerful pipes of Antonio Mairena, a famous flamenco singer from southern Spain, couldn’t scare off this domestic pigeon, nor could his smooth, bald head prevent the pigeons feet from grabbing hold. Somewhere deep inside the psyche of pigeon must lay at least some appreciation for this art form native to Seville: of all the white wash streaming down the side of Antonio’s head, almost none made it inside his capacious mouth. Classy.





Rome, Italy

Recent studies suggest that pigeons don’t believe in the afterlife, which probably explains this birds lackadaisical gaze towards an angel on the Sant’Angelo Bridge in the heart of Rome. Neither the freakishly large wings of this angel nor the fact that it was armed with a lance dissuaded this bird – nor the House Sparrow on the top her head – from roosting.




Venice, Italy

Pigeons are notorious for having exceptionally low literacy rates amongst birds. Certainly this individual didn’t even know it’d taken residence on the head of Niccolo Tommaseo, a “Dalmatian linguist” and writer from Italy. I believe this means he wrote about the tongues of spotted dogs, which seems like an awfully esoteric topic. That didn’t matter to this pigeon; it was just thankful that Niccolo wrote about enough canine tongues to warrant a tall and intricately carved perch.