It’s now May, the peak breeding time for birds (and many other animals) in Britain, this means it is also the best time of year for listening to birdsong. With the majority of the summer migrants now arrived and setting up territory there is a great diversity of songs as resident species and visitors breed side by side. For birds, song is a necessary functional tool that, along with display behaviour, will both secure them a mate and repel rivals. For some reason that no one has ever satisfactorily explained to me, we humans happen to find many of the territorial/mate-attracting noises that birds make astoundingly beautiful to listen to. It shouldn’t mean anything to us, just like the reproductive organs of plants (flowers) shouldn’t mean anything to us, but birdsong is one of the most delightful sounds in the natural world.
Of course, not all song-birds are included in this, for example while I do find the song of the Chiffchaff interesting, I would never go so far as to call it beautiful, nor would I apply that word to the loud, trilling ‘song’ of a Nuthatch. However, there are species whose songs can stir emotion within us or inspire poets and composers. Being individuals (I’m not), we all have our favourites, although there are some bird songs so sublime that everyone can agree that they are stirred by them.
Personally, I have a great fondness for the song of the common-or-garden Blackbird (Turdus merula) which I feel has been rather neglected by writers and poets and is generally overlooked (or should that be over-listened?) by most. The very fact that it is one of the most frequently encountered songs in a wide variety of habitats makes it particularly important as it brings a gorgeous part of the natural world into the lives of people in urban areas, and links people from all backgrounds with its fluid notes.
As a song, it is one of the most pleasing on the ear; being not too high-pitched, nor too rapid and confusing and it has no grating notes in it or repetitive phrases. When the male Blackbird sits atop a chimney-piece as the sky turns from midnight-blue to watery-yellow with the rising of the sun, he lets forth a steady flow of wavering, flute-like warbles at a careful, considered pace which is instantly relaxing and calming to the human ear. When a Blackbird sings, it is almost like speech if you listen closely; there are definite phrases and some notes which are repeated like words, there are also regular pauses – as though he has reached the end of a sentence, and often he will end a ‘sentence’ with a higher note, as if he were asking a question. I find the song of the Blackbird to be very stress-relieving when it is performed continuously in the background, and surprisingly beautiful when listened to carefully and up-close.
A song which will no doubt be on many people’s lists is that of the Skylark (Alauda arvensis). In contrast to the Blackbird a Skylark’s song is incredibly rapid, complicated and energetic, which has a rather different, but very positive effect on my ear whenever I have the blessing to come across one. Standing beneath a singing male Skylark as he rises high into the heavens above on quivering wings, with the endless stream of music falling upon your head like water, is one of the best and most moving experiences in nature. But rather than lulling you into peace as the song of the Blackbird is wont to do, the song of the Skylark fills you with awe, delight, joy and even ecstasy as this tiny bird amazes your mind and challenges your ear. Its song has the remarkable ability to seemingly go on for ages without a break and, as far as the human ear can work out, without repetition of any phrases. Each utterance from the bird’s bill seems to be a new arrangement of notes, and while the energy of the song is beautiful you are left wondering at the creativity of the bird. Closer analysis on a computer reveals the lark’s song to be considerably more complex than our ears can conceive, with notes produced so rapidly they melt into each other and change with every passing millisecond.
Another of my favourite bird-songs is that of the Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), which always surprises me – you would think that a bird which is so stunningly coloured and patterned, with red face and golden wings, would hardly need a sophisticated song to woo the ladies or see off intruders, yet it has. Due to the song being so high-pitched it is often lost amongst the constant artificial hums and drones which fill the modern landscape, only when you are very near the source of the song do its clear, crisp notes become obvious. It is a song filled with trills, whistles and metallic ‘tics’ and ‘tings’ like tiny bells rattling, it is much simpler than the Skylark’s song, yet its clarity and ‘cleanness’ has an honest feel to it which tends to remind me of good, pure things – it is the sort of song I sometimes imagine might accompany a cherub or some other innocent thing. The beauty of its song was once a major problem for the Goldfinch, for little over a century ago huge numbers of this bird were caught and caged, then sold in markets so that everyone could hear its trilling notes in the comfort of their own homes.
There are many other bird-songs that I love; those of the Garden Warbler, Wren, Mistle Thrush, Starling, Lapwing and Curlew are particularly special ones that spring to mind. But I also appreciate those ‘songs’ which perhaps stretch the definition of a melody to its limit, yet have their own meaning and quality which we humans attach to them that raise them above being simple, physical noises to something more important. The scream of the Swift is hardly attractive, yet I am always elated, even overjoyed to hear it, simply because of the significance of that sound – it is inextricably linked with summer, and all that that entails, and the birds themselves are very special and always welcome.
Other simple songs or calls which have a beauty beyond their literal sound-waves include the Cuckoo – a ‘song’ which is very simple and repetitive yet conveys a warm, slightly nostalgic glow to my heart whenever I hear it (increasingly little these days). The voice of the Turtle Dove is similarly simple, yet that monotonous call which sounds so much like the purr of a giant cat, has a calm, soothing tone to it, almost laconic and sultry. Birdsong can be very personal, the places where we grew up or have some special connection with all have their own choir of birds, often unique to that place – different birds live in different habitats, so if you grew up in the uplands then the call of the Curlew or grouse may have more meaning to you than someone from a town, who themselves may find much emotional connection in the song of the Robin or cooing of a Collared Dove.
Birdsong transcends cultural and language boundaries, a love of it is common to all people across the Earth, it is something that is repeatedly immortalised in all our art-forms and collective memories. Although birdsong can be appreciated throughout the year, it is now that it peaks in diversity and fervour and birds sing through the day, not just at dawn or dusk, so re-focus your ears from the radio or television and tune in to this most accessible of nature’s marvels.