At this time of year, birds are singing industriously from dawn till dusk. It’s sound that lifts the heart – for me, anyway. I once spent a May night in a lodge at the Glencoe ski resort, and they had a notice pinned up which said, “Sorry about the cuckoo”. I loved him cuckooing his heart out till 11pm in the light evening, but I guess some guests found it irksome.
Birds don’t sing for us, they sing for each other. Why do humans find the sound so appealing?
Birdsong includes squeaks that are harsh and metallic like a train braking, rasping croaks like frogs, hollow woody sounds and sliding whistles. They rarely sing what we might call actual tunes. Their notes change pitch and don’t use our human-invented scales. They have rhythms but rarely a sense of pulse. This means they fit the definition of “noise” rather than “music”. Nevertheless, birdsong appeals to our human ears and can fill us with joy.
Birds’ voices work differently to ours. Their amazing anatomy means that they can not only sing while breathing in, but make two noises simultaneously. Birdsong can be incredibly loud compared to the size of the creature – particularly the diminutive wren. Luckily emus and ostriches don’t have the same volume to mass ratio, otherwise they would deafen everything within earshot.
Learning birdsongs is something I’ve said I’d like to do many times. It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I could reliably identify a blackbird singing and my progress is slow. There’s a lovely bit in one of Simon Barnes’s books – it might be How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – where he and some friends are outside a bar in Slovenia naming the birds they can hear, and the waitress says, “And so you can tell which bird it is just by listening?” in the same awed tone of voice as she might say, “And so you just turn the water into wine?”
Lucy Lapwing is a birder who does lovely social media and she has put up some Youtube videos teaching birdsongs. She takes them one by one, and she says this is how she learnt, listening repeatedly to one song – for instance, using a recording of the song as a ringtone. She had the song of the blackcap as her ringtone for so long that she still can’t hear a blackcap without putting her hand to her phone.
I am very much enjoying my journey from all birdsong sounding like generic “birdsong” to it being a collage of many individual voices – ooh, there’s a nuthatch. Sometimes I even say out loud, “Who are YOU?” when I hear a bird I don’t know. But I don’t think it matters whether you can attach a name to what you hear – it is still a delight to know we are sharing our space with other, non-human singers.