How songs of springtime reveal four birds in one

A A A

A small bird whose song is one of the most distinctive sounds of spring in Britain is actually four separate species, scientists have discovered.

A small bird whose song is one of the most distinctive sounds of spring in Britain is actually four separate species, scientists have discovered.

The chiffchaff, a green warbler that floods into Europe by the millions from its wintering grounds in Africa, is now arriving in Britain. Its repeated chiff-chaff high-note, low-note song is as unmistakable as that of the cuckoo's, if not so well fixed in the popular imagination, and much more widespread.

But sophisticated computer analysis of it - followed up by DNA evidence - has led scientists to realise that Europe and western Asia are annually visited by four distinct species of chiffchaff rather than one.

The bird that normally occurs in Britain, and which is now to be called the common chiffchaff, stretches in its range from France through Scandinavia to Russia.

But the one that visits Spain and Portugal is separate, and is now to be called the Iberian chiffchaff, while the Canary Islands chiffchaff is different again. To complete the picture, the bird that occurs from Turkey down to Afghanistan is also a separate species, now to be called the mountain chiffchaff.

A group of German scientists, led by Andreas Helbig from the University of Greifswald in north-eastern Germany, has established the differences, and reported them in Ibis, the journal of the British Ornithologists' Union. Using sonograms - computer print-outs of the different songs - they show, for example, how the common chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita, differs from the Iberian chiffchaff, P. brehmii.

The first has "an ascending note, ranging from about 2kHz to 5kHz, with a harmonic upper tone which is always present", while the second "produces a note starting with an ascent, then descending with a longer downstroke, a quite unique structure not found in any other chiffchaff". Analysis of the DNA of birds of each of the four types has confirmed that they are separate species.

Steve Dudley, administrator of the British Ornithologists' Union, said: "This is quite a feat, because essentially all four of them resemble each other very, very closely.

"There are subtle differences such as bill structure, but in terms of their general appearance they are very, very similar."

One of the newly described species, the Iberian chiffchaff, has now been added to the official list of birds occurring in Britain - now numbering 553 - which the British Ornithologists' Union maintains. A bird seen at Brent reservoir in north London in 1972 was tape-recorded and one of Dr Helbig's German colleagues has confirmed its identity from analysis of the song.

Several other records are awaiting confirmation, including that of the bird on this page, seen, heard and tape-recorded last summer at Portland, Dorset.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific