As important as it is, I despise sunblock. Within an hour, fiery SPF particles, or whatever chemical gunk is in the stuff, find their way into my eyes. Particularly when I’m birding in a humid, tropical place. And you can’t get more humid and tropical than Thailand’s lowland forests.

I was staring into the canopy, my frustration rising faster than the ambient temperature, and I could hear the most bizarre call: a series of growling whistles increasing in pace to a frantic crescendo. But the caller remained invisible, as beautiful forest birds tend to do.

Being unfamiliar with bird calls when birding on foreign soil is simultaneously exciting and maddening. I ended up sitting down on a log and working through all the Thai bird calls on my phone until I solved the mystery. The song belonged to a black-and-yellow broadbill, which is a dull name for a rather beautiful bird.

Whether you’re birding in Thailand or Thabazimbi, the importance of knowing bird calls cannot be overstated. Ask an expert birder whether he or she would rather go blind or deaf, and it would be a hard decision. I remember once guiding a bird walk on which we recorded 80-odd species.

At the end of the walk, one lady refused to believe this tally. “You never even lifted your binoculars!” she said.

Whether you’re birding in Thailand or Thabazimbi, the importance of knowing bird calls cannot be overstated

On another occasion, I joined some colleagues for an experimental birding big day to see how many birds we could jot down using only our ears. After a whole day of looking at our feet, we ended up with nearly 200 species.

Not only does knowing calls help to find and track down birds, it can also be critical to clinching difficult IDs. (One word: cisticolas.)

Let’s be honest, though. Learning the calls of almost a thousand southern African birds is akin to learning a whole new language. But just like Mandarin or Spanish, start by learning some basics. And here’s the good news: You already know a whole bunch of calls, even if you’ve never picked up binoculars or used your Roberts as anything other than a paperweight.

The iconic cry of the fish-eagle, for example, popularised in wildlife documentaries and whisky adverts; the horrible howl of the hadeda, which gets you out of bed every morning; or that phantom of summer, the piet-my-vrou.


Some more good news: It isn’t necessary to learn all the calls. Some birds are almost never heard: pelagic seabirds, raptors, storks, cormorants, bustards… Learning their calls is pointless

Now some bad news: You’ll never reach a point where you’re familiar with every call you might hear. Because the more you listen, the more you pick up. You’ll soon realise that the few seconds of audio on your bird app is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For starters, each individual bird sounds a little different, just like each human has a different voice. The birds themselves know their neighbours and keep track of who’s around.

Secondly, birds have an entire language. At a very basic level, this language can be divided into songs and calls. A bird’s song is the first thing to learn. This is the loud and musical outpouring that helps birds defend a territory or attract a mate.

Songs are typically given by males, and most vociferously at the onset of the breeding season. Calls are shorter, softer and have a specific meaning. There are alarm calls, threat calls, distress calls, contact calls, courtship calls, begging calls and a whole suite more.

Something we can all agree on is that a bird book’s description of a sound is utterly useless. If you can tell me what a metallic, nasal quitsch actually sounds like, or a throaty, quavering tchui’uui, you can have my Zeiss binoculars.

Something we can all agree on is that a bird book’s description of a sound is utterly useless

Fortunately, multimedia has come to the rescue. Those of us who have suffered from a birding addiction for decades will remember fast-forwarding and rewinding cassette tapes on a Walkman. Nowadays, it’s instant on your smartphone. A few seconds of playback and the bird magically pops up to pose for a photo.

A word of sympathy on the bird’s behalf: Excessive playback of bird calls can be stressful for the bird. They interpret the sound as the sudden arrival of an intruder in their territory, and they leap into defence mode. Imagine if you suddenly and unexpectedly heard loud and unfamiliar voices in your house.

One useful trick is to use the bird’s name to figure out what it sounds like: Think hoopoe, boubou or oriole. Many birds have lekker creative Afrikaans names that tell you what they sound like: bokmakierie, diederikkie, spookvoël, konkoit, willie, tjeriktik, kwêkwêvoël, swie…

This is what a bokmakierie sounds like

This is what a spookvoël (Grey-headed bushshrikesounds like 

Some bird sounds resemble phrases. A fiery-necked nightjar says, “No – call – is prettier”, and a Swainson’s spurfowl admits, “Bankrot, bankrot.” The African emerald cuckoo unequivocally states, “Pretty, Georgie”, or perhaps it’s actually Afrikaans: “Mooi, meisie.”

Can you think of others? Even some scientific names are whimsically onomatopoeic, like Cinnyris talatala (white-bellied sunbird), or Turdus litsitsirupa (groundscraper thrush).

Learning bird calls is tough. I know. But persevere and practise. Soon you’ll be saying ni hao and hola to a whole orchestra of sound around you.

Did you know? Black-bellied starlings can mimic other birds. Read more here.

This is what they sound like:

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