Birdsong in all its many forms is surely one of the greatest pleasures, says Mark Cocker.
Towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s brutally dark novel about worldwide environmental catastrophe, The Road, there is a pivotal moment when its two central characters are forced to spend their nights in a black, freezing wasteland.
To escape this nightmarish place, one of them is described as falling into dreams that are “softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun”.
There we have it: human life stripped back to its fundamental sources of happiness.
There is no life without the sun, and not much of a life without human fellowship, but why exactly should we celebrate birdsong? What is it about those avian sounds that can somehow stand for all the blessings of nature and has affected us throughout the ages and across continents?
For McCarthy himself, birdsong is surely a metaphor for the whole glorious life support system represented by a healthy environment – the network that nourishes both human body and soul. This harmony is the very thing obliterated in The Road. Yet others have felt equally strongly about its impact.
Ancient Sanskrit writings from India declared that a place without birds was a meal without spice. It is a sentiment that is also deeply rooted in our own culture. The author Aldous Huxley once suggested that if we took birds out of British poetry we would have to dispense with half of the English canon.
Perhaps we should be clear about what birdsong is. Birds make all sorts of noises for a host of reasons: contact calls to keep in touch with one another, threat sounds to warn off rivals and mutual alerts about common danger.
Yet song is usually produced by the male during the breeding season, and it is invariably more complex in structure and length than a mere call.
The Eurasian skylark
is a perfect example. The sound it uses in most non-breeding circumstances is a dry monosyllable often transcribed as ‘prrrut’. Its song, on the other hand, is a glorious elaboration of that same rudimentary unit.
The male broadcasts from on high, in a special aerial song flight, a seemingly endless jangle of joyous notes that rolls and undulates, rather like the contours of the open landscapes that skylarks frequently inhabit.
It is precisely this vocal performance of birds, the song display during the breeding season, that we have judged and celebrated for its closeness to human music.
Yet the skylark’s functional calls and its beautiful song are actually not that different. For the latter, too, has a practical purpose. The song serves its author as an audible ‘No entry’ sign posted around his territory for all of his male neighbours to heed, while also advertising to any female that the same cock bird is available as a potential mate.
Very little of this natural history has a bearing on our cultural celebration of birdsong, however. Who listens to a blackbird
or song thrush
on a summer’s evening and then dwells on the idea that its song is a form of sexual warfare conducted through music?
Far from it. We are invariably moved by its uplifting joyous quality or its sheer spring-like gusto.
In other words, we are interested in what the song means to us, rather than how it functions for the bird. We frequently load birdsongs with all sorts of cultural meanings that have very little to do with the avian world at all.
The sweet song of the nightingale
The exemplar is probably the species most celebrated for its song in Europe: the nightingale
. One idea that held sway over our collective imaginations for 1,000 years was that it was the female that did the singing.
Even John Clare, the most observant and rigorous (in a natural-history sense) of 19th-century poets to celebrate this bird, closed his sonnet with the line: “Still sings the Nightingale her sweet melodious song.” Confusing the songster’s sex was actually the least of our distortion.
It was widely assumed that when the hen nightingale poured forth she was accustomed to lean her breast on a thorn, so that as she sang she was able to impart more emphatically the metaphysical pain inflicted by love. For it was inferred that nightingale song was essentially a music of lost love and of sadness.
Even now, people conventionally talk of the forceful rhythmic pulse in the performance as ‘sobbing’.
I defy anyone to track down and listen to a real nightingale and not find their imaginations conjuring up romantic images created by poets and other writers. In a sense we don’t hear the bird itself – rather, we encounter the briar of ideas with which we have surrounded it.
Was a reaction to this literary hijacking of nature behind the recent verdict on our favourite songbird? In a poll of the UK’s top 10 songsters, a much simpler and – dare I say it – more emotionally ‘honest’ performer came out top: the song thrush. There is something true and clear about its ringing bell-like notes that helps to explain why we should love the species.