I listen for the geese as they direct each other over our home, from one feeding ground to another. I have tingled when I heard the swifts scream all around me. Winter sounds, summer songs, spring music, autumn calls – they are everywhere. Some grey days, when the world won’t come alive, are menacingly quiet. And then a robin sings. It may be a male, it may be a female – they both sing, often from a hidden spot in a hedge, a bush or a tree. In the springtime – and we are almost there – it is the male who will sing his rich warble to attract a mate. His volume is up and the notes are long and almost plaintive. Later, towards the end of summer, robins seem to disappear for a while. While they are moulting, after breeding, they become a little embarrassed and silent. When autumn comes the robin will begin to sing again so that it can let us know where its winter territories are going to be. The song is quieter than in the springtime though. In his “Songs of Innocence”, William Blake touches on the throbbing song of the little redbreast:
“Pretty, Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, Pretty Robin,
Near my Bosom.”
The little poem is entitled “The Blossom” and who hasn’t seen a picture of the robin singing from a spray of apple blossom? Birdsong has such power. Power to lift a soul from its muddy puddle. I cannot understand how a body has no interest in the sound a bird makes when that same body will travel miles to catch said bird on camera. Why do people have tick-lists of birds they have seen when they could stay and listen and thrill to those exquisite notes? I have only seen the cuckoo once but I have heard it many, many times – even as far north as we now are in Caithness. Wordsworth in “To the Cuckoo”, describes that tantalising sound,
“While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.”
My family honour the first call of the cuckoo. It is a rite of passage. When you hear that sound, there is a certainty through Spring into Summer. My grandparents loved it, my mother still loves it, my own generation loves it and my grown-up children are captivated by it. The cuckoo’s loud and monotonous two-syllable call IS Spring. This is the cuckoo’s courtship and will attract a female for the male but, nonetheless, to the human ear, it IS Spring. But back to our little robin. The robin and the wren, whose song is pure thrill, will punctuate a winter’s day with their territorial calls but, as the March days lengthen, the thrush will join in and the blue tits and great tits too. Spring migrants will soon arrive and add their voices. The willow warblers sing without pause to make certain of their territories. Their song is soft and liquid with notes descending. The tune is beautiful.
Birdsong is not limited to the daytime. One of the most memorable sounds of the first part of Spring is the song of the tawny owl. The male and female make the well-known “tu-whit, tu-whoo” sound by calling to each other – a merry note, so says Shakespeare – so it must be! Their song is much pleasanter to the ear than the call of the barn owl which can be pretty scary. It ranges from a hiss to an eerie blood-curdling scream – hence the “screech owl”. We have both here. We sometimes hear the tawnies from our house and the barn owls we spot from the car when we are driving home in the evenings. It was much the same in Lincolnshire. The tawny owls frequented the trees at the bottom of the garden and a great ghost of a barn owl would fly low alongside the car of an evening. Their calls please me. As the cuckoo is symbolic of Spring, so the owl is emblematic of the night – except for the short-eared owl which is an opportunist and hunts in the daytime too. Last year, on a walk, we spotted one flying ahead of us, then stopping, then flying on- rather as a wheatear does. It isn’t classic owl behaviour but that is what happened.
Some twenty years ago, living in a wrecker’s cottage named “Grey Gulls”, we were able to watch and listen to the various gulls sailing the skies of Orkney. Their songs range from the bark of the great black-back to the shrill whistle of the common gull. Now that we are across the Pentland Firth from there, we hear them still. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between the bubbling trill of the curlew and the laughing mew of the herring gull. We hear all of the sounds which the herring gulls make as they are all around us throughout the year. We throw an apple core onto the garden and ZAP! a herring gull is down on it and swallowing it in its entirety. You can even watch it go down the neck of the bird. The mafia of gulls which exists in our neighbourhood contrasts vividly with the solitary thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush”. Hardy claims hope for the new century in the song of the thrush. He called it a blessed hope which the thrush knew of but the writer did not. It turned out to be a century which brought two conflicts on world scale – but our planet survived and is currently stepping gingerly into a new millenium. While the birds continue to sing, there is hope for all our tomorrows.
Another favourite birdsong is the cooing of the dove. Often, when I am at my desk, I can hear the doves in the trees which fill our square. Perhaps it is because of the part the dove plays in the Christian scriptures, but that sound is such peace, such calm – and clears my fuddled head every time I hear it. They are silvery sweet birds and I am always glad to see them share the birdseed in the garden. Another sound they make, which I consider to be friendly and sociable, is the tuck-tuck-tuck as they pick up the seed which is scattered daily on the roof of my little metal tool shed. I first met the modest dove when we lived near to the village school and the trees surrounding it had cooing doves sharing their secrets with this voyeuristic little girl. I hope there will always be a pair of cooing collared doves close by.
The messages which we call birdsong don’t stop after the breeding season. John Keats, in his very well-known “To Autumn”, was aware of the redbreast whistling from a garden croft and gathering swallows twittering in the skies. At the back end of the year those twittering swallows sit on the wires, which run to and from our home, calling to each other. The sound is particularly lovely as it will likely be the last time we hear from them for a while. Their relative, the house martin, is another twitterer. We shared our first home with a pair of house martins. They would return each year until our children were old enough for boisterous games below the birds’ pitch. We would listen to their chattering and watch them build as they came to and fro with mud for their nest. The sounds of the martins and of our children playing, blend in my memory, transporting me to delightful summers when the returning martins were not as new to parenting as we were. When the children were much older we lived in an old cottage with a roof which was in part supported by a massive tree trunk. The swifts would nest in that roof year after year and wake us with the summer dawn – yet staying up late in the evening. Their families – I am sure there cannot have been only one family – sounded more like rats scurrying about up there than birds. Don’t read Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service” while you have visiting swifts in your attic!
The tiny wrens make excellent parents and the strong family bond is reflected in the way the young of the first brood often help their parents in feeding the next lot of babies. Both sexes sing during courtship and their vocalising is a joy to hear:
“You know I love the wren
Yodelling for me,
Yammering as he defends his den,
Yelling to save his mate –
Yet you will hear his song, then
Yesterdays will be as today.” ( Janet Mackintosh Cayley )
The poor little things are fairly terrified of the jackdaws who come here to join in the breakfast party in our back garden. The jackdaws come in their tens. Their “chack-chack-chack” is enough to frighten the smaller birds and yet, to me, it is an amiable sound, almost as if they are telling me that Jack and Jack and Jack have all arrived and send greetings.
By the end of March, garden bird activity becomes quite intense. As well as our robins, wrens, thrushes and tits, the chaffinches, dunnocks and greenfinches join in the music. Some, you just hear and rarely, if ever, see – like the wee goldcrest. The summer visitors, such as the blackcap and the chiff-chaff, arrive in April. The orchestra expands until, in early June, birdsong is everywhere. How anyone cannot love the passion in each aria, I will never understand. They sing out with everything they can give and then, when light is all around them, they come down to the ground and look for food. It is thought that the song thrush starts off the dawn chorus when it is still dark and the great tits, blackbirds and wrens are also early birds. But they are unable to catch the worm until it is light. Then they tank up and, it seems, they give an encore later in the morning – almost a thank you for the food they have found.
There have been many times when the dawn chorus has seemed to me so beautiful that it has almost made me cry. There are some sounds which make your nose tingle, your eyes fill and simply pick up you breath and run away with it. The dawn chorus is choral singing of the heavenly order. Two of our lovely daughters were born early in the morning – one in Spring and the other in early Summer. They were welcomed into the world by the same celestial choir which will sing us through Spring and into Summer 2013. They sang away the pain of someone dear who had suffered with Motor Neurone Disease. The music is there all our lives through:
“A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are
in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.” (Walt Whitman 1819-92)