There are no adequate words to describe birdsong. Humans have tried to represent the notes and tunes with words like “trill”, “chirrup”, “twitter”, “tweet” (and these latter two stolen back to label the chatter from our phones). People have even named birds after the sound they make as in cuckoo, chiffchaff, macaw, kittiwake. As I listen to the birds outside my window flying between the branches of the rowan, the buckthorn and all the flowering shrubs I cannot fix on any way to accurately convey the melodious sounds that cheer and inspire me.I consult the experts. Bird books provide all kinds of interesting facts. I learn there are calls and songs. Calls are short, simple phrasings while songs contain more notes and are longer. I recognise these differences. Calls do sound more purposeful, a bit like the human “hey, watch out!” or “stop, pay attention!” Songs are more decorative, seem to be released from the bird’s throat just for the hell of it. Is it blatant anthropomorphism to suggest the bird may be simply feeling good and wants to put that joy out into the world? I suspect, yes.
I consult the experts. I discover that male birds make most sound in spring and summer because it’s all to do with attracting a mate and keeping away rivals from his territory. Females don’t sing – only call (except English robins). Birds that don’t sing at all (e.g. gulls and parrots) have numerous calls. Most common garden birds are passerines or perching birds and all passerines sing. I have also learned that woodland birds have longer, richer songs to penetrate the dense foliage. Marshland birds sing more simply and repetitively in their more open surroundings.
Birds and birdsong have been subjects for poets through the ages. One of my favourites is The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy which boldly speaks of hope coming through difficult times.
And I’ve had a go too, to pay homage to the songs of birds that have graced my journey through gardens, woods and forests.
The Darkling Thrush – Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overheard
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
I was inspired to write the following poem for a friend’s husband who chose to create beautiful objects to leave in the world as he faced his end of life.
(For the memory of Gregory)
A robin is singing from the top of the cedar.
You are listening to the bird.
Waiting for the trills to stop, for the short night
before another chorus at dawn.
This spring you’ve learned there will be no more
so you work all the days and nights you have left
make chairs, tables, shelves to fill the space
you’ll leave behind. Carving, cutting grooves and curves,
following the lines with strokes, your hands
smoothing surfaces. They absorb your warmth.
You take a white cotton cloth, rub the stain into a circle.
Birdsong augured by the scrape and tap of tools.