THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

14 January 2019

Recording of the week: starling mimicry

This week's selection comes from Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Learning to identify bird song can be tricky at the best of times; to the untrained ear it can all sound remarkably similar. To add to the confusion, many birds like to show off by mimicking the songs of other species, and some are very good at it.

Vintage illustration of a European Starling

In the UK, our best copycat is the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). These incredible birds are like little avian hip hop artists. They take in ‘samples’ of the songs and calls around them and remix them! A typical starling song is very complex, consisting of multiple layers, and can incorporate song fragments from five or more species. Sometimes the song is reproduced faithfully, other times the rhythm is chopped up, repeated and mixed in with other sounds. It’s not just other birds they mimic too. They have been recorded mimicking mammals, car alarms, telephone ringtones, and even human speech.

This recording from Patrick Sellar showcases just some of the starling’s seemingly limitless repertoire. Patrick identifies the songs and calls of jackdaw, brambling, buzzard, blackbird, house sparrow, wren, arctic tern, northern bullfinch and willow tit.

WS5532 C10 - Common Starling mimicry recorded by Patrick Sellar on 1 st May 1978 (BL ref 07111) 

This spectrogram shows the similar harmonic content between the flight call of the buzzard and the starling’s mimicry.

A spectrogram showing the similar harmonic content between the flight call of the buzzard and the starling’s mimicry

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This recording has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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