Songs of praise: The beauty of birdsong

Birdsong in all its many forms is surely one of the greatest pleasures, says Mark Cocker. 

 

 

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Yet perhaps there was another factor at work. Unlike the nightingale, which is scarce and occurs only in southern England in summer, song thrushes are abundant and widespread. From the Hebrides to Hampstead Heath, people everywhere can enjoy listening to their powerful performances.
 
Song as memory
 
While all of us respond to birdsong differently, a common feature in our celebration of the phenomenon is that it becomes a personal memory bank for all of the other occasions we listened to that same sound. So a favourite song is almost, by definition, a continuing narrative about ourselves.
 
What we cherish are the other times we are reminded of, as much as the moment it speaks to now. The voice that triggers such a cascade of thoughts and feelings can actually be remarkably plain – for example, the doggedly repetitive disyllable of the common cuckoo, or the hoarse oboe notes of the woodpigeon.
 
The philosopher Immanuel Kant asked if it mattered to our enjoyment of birdsong that we know its author’s name. He concluded that it did, but perhaps a more intriguing modern question is: does it matter if we understand the natural history contained in a song?
 
This is especially relevant to a suite of mimics, such as the European starling, the sedge warbler and Australia’s largest songbirds, the superb Albert’s lyrebirds.
 
All of these birds famously incorporate into their performances a huge range of sounds that they pick up from other sources. The starling that does a perfect imitation of a curlew or tawny owl while sitting on a chimney pot is perhaps Britain’s best-known avian cover artist. Being able to recognise the mimicry being performed surely enriches our appreciation.
 
The art of mimicry
 
I sometimes feel that knowledge of a song’s wider context is pivotal. The lyrebirds, among the world’s grandest songsters, borrow all sorts of artificial noises, from the whining buzz of chain saws to the motor drive on a camera, revving car engines, mellifluous flute music and spoken words.
 
In Lamington National Park in southern Queensland the Albert’s lyrebirds have been known to integrate a segment of highly syncopated rhythmic clapping sounds into their songs, even bouncing on vine stems as they deliver it.
 
The whole fandango is thought to have been borrowed from music the birds once heard enacted at the ritual corroborees (ceremonial meetings) of local Aborigines.
 
What makes this mimicry so intriguing is that the area’s Aborigines died out more than a century ago. If what we hear when a male Albert’s lyrebird reproduces these rhythmic passages is actually an echo of human chanting from 100 years earlier, copied and passed on down generations of lyrebirds, then it is one of just a handful of instances where birdsong is a repository for human culture.
 
We are accustomed to examples of our own art – cave paintings or Egyptian murals, for instance – that record the lives of lost birds. Here, however, the roles are reversed. It is the extraordinary sound organ, or syrinx, of a songbird that has managed to keep alive the memory of the species’ vanished human neighbours.
 
 
 
GOOD VIBRATIONS: Birdsong is created by an organ found in no other animal
 
People have kept cage birds for at least 3,000 years, coming up with ingenious theories about their vocal outpourings. For example, it was once common practice to split the tongues of starlings and crows in the mistaken belief that it would help them to talk.
 
In fact, the tongue plays no part in bird vocalisation (except among parrots). The true organ of sound is the syrinx.
 
Located near where the trachea (windpipe) divides, it is an arrangement of cartilage, muscle and vibratory membranes over which exhaled and inhaled air passes, and can generate sounds of extraordinary complexity. Some birds are even able to produce two notes simultaneously.
 
 
 
HOW TO LEARN BIRDSONG: Familiarise yourself with common species first
 
New technology means that learning birdsong has never been easier: there is a wealth of websites, MP3 downloads, CDs and DVDs to help you tell one sound from another. But these are only aids. There is no substitute for listening to real birds.
 
The best time to begin is late winter as fewer species are singing. Try to master the sounds of your local ‘anchor’ species – simple songs such as (in Europe) the double chime of the great tit, the sneezing notes of the greenfinch or the repeated, crystal-clear phrases of the song thrush.
 
Then get to grips with more complex songs such as those of the European robin or wren, and gradually increase your repertoire.
 
 
 
The best beginners’ guide is Collins’ Garden Bird Songs and Calls by Geoff Sample (booklet and CD, £14.99).
 
To hear the favourite British birdsongs of wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson, click here
 
One of the best online birdsong libraries is www.xeno-canto.org
 
 
 
With photographer David Tipling, Mark is working on a book about birds’ cultural importance, Birds and People, and would love to know your favourite birdsong. Visit www.birdsandpeople.org or email markcocker@randomhouse.co.uk (all contributions used will be acknowledged).
 

Mark Cocker is an author with a special interest in birds’ cultural importance. His favourite birdsong? That of the blackbird.

 

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