On the moor I saw a plover
And a curlew called her lover
Spring has surely come again.
We learned that song at junior school. Does a curlew really go peewit? A yellowhammer say, a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese? I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never knowingly heard the call of either bird. Richard Smyth, a birdwatcher since childhood, has trained himself to really listen to the noise the birds make, is happy to use these strange phonetics and can distinguish between a chuck and a chack. Considering the numbers of birds I see in or from my garden, I hear very little of what I would call song. I may hear the overhead mewing of a buzzard or, at night, the call of a tawny owl. I’m all too familiar with the cawing of rooks, the screaming of jays, the descending Mwha-ha-ha-ha-ha (see, I can do it, too), of the woodpecker. Birdsong, for me, is limited to hearing a blackbird sing on an April evening, or the confused twittering of the dawn chorus at four on a summer’s morning, which always lasts just long enough to stop me falling asleep again and then ends abruptly. I’m obviously not listening properly, although I can remember exactly where and when I first heard a cuckoo, or a skylark.
There’s a lot of science in this book, with references to learned works on the nature of birdsong, how birds produce it and why they do so. (Did you know, for instance, that birds have dialects?) For me, the most interesting sections are those dealing with poetry and music. No sooner did Smyth mention poetry in connection with birdsong, than my head was full of lines of poetry, from ‘philomel with melody’ to Browning’s ‘wise thrush’ and Edward Thomas’s ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’. English pastoral poetry is just full of birdsong, with the nightingale and the skylark top birds. Birdsong has shaped our poetry, yes – but poetry, in its turn, has shaped the way we listen to birdsong, and what we think it’s saying to us. After dealing with Coleridge and the romantics, Smyth moves on to Hardy to make this point. Hardy writes his poem, (The Darkling Thrush) and we read it and, - in a small way, but still – we’ll never listen to a thrush’s song in quite the same way again.
Just last week, in the first episode of Civilisations, I learned that a very early flute was made from the bone of a vulture. Apparently, according to Smyth, Lucretius wrote that the first men ‘learned music from the birds.’ (Presumably not from a vulture.) ‘St Gregory … was said to have been taught the form of plainsong known as 'Gregorian chant’ by a white dove,’ The explanation is too technical for me but birds do not sing ‘music’ that is like human music; the scales and the ‘harmonic intervals’ are different. It is we who impose our idea of music on what we hear from the birds. That obviously hasn’t stopped composers from Beethoven to Messaien from incorporating their idea of birdsong into their music. Smyth concludes that this is a kind of translation, which can’t be literal and that ‘Perhaps birdsong is best listened to on its own terms.'
You will have realised by now that I loved this book. It was published last year and the new, paperback edition was sent to me by Elliott and Thompson, to whom I’m very grateful. I read the ‘Praise for’ section at the beginning of the book and noted that none of these writers, mostly naturalists, mentioned that this book is quite funny, yet another attraction. The title is Gilbert White’s description of the song of the blackcap. After reading the book I wanted to re-read Richard Mabey’s The Book of Nightingales, (reviewed here) and was annoyed to find I must have given it away. Tsk.