It’s six in the morning and still dark, 24 March 2020. I wake early and, knowing the children will soon be up, decide to steal half an hour’s solitude in the park. From the dense latticework of trees and shrubs that clothe the wooded slope comes a constant scuttling through dead leaves. The darkness is awake and vigilant; there’s the warning tik-tik of an invisible robin from the bushes, and then the next second it appears on the path. Each individual movement of the bird, each wing-flick and pivot, is brisk and definite yet the overall impression is one of nervousness and indecision. It leaps round once more on the spot, then flits back into the darkness.
From close by comes a blast of song from a wren. Its harsh trill is like coarse twine zipping over a flywheel. The air is cool, not cold, and smells deliciously of earth and moss. There’s a sudden disturbance from the deeper shade, and a blackbird comes careering out with a mad clatter and pauses, alert, on the great arm of a beech tree. It’s evidently agitated. It flicks about the bough, dipping then raising its wings, and tilting its head all the while in response to something I can’t sense. After a few seconds of this twitching the bird seems to experience some sort of inner resolution, and, as the first beam of grey light wakes the colours of the tree, it raises its head and lets out a quiet phrase of song. Spring has arrived.
The day before my early walk in the park, the prime minister ordered a shutdown of public life that would entirely change society as we’d known it. By government decree, normal life was suspended. In the coastal town where I live, compliance was immediate and total. All traffic noise ceased, and you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets. It felt as if nine-tenths of the population had disappeared overnight. The strangeness was amplified tenfold by the difficulty of reconciling this “lockdown” with the sudden coming of the most glorious spring that anyone could remember.
But most of all, we began to notice the birdsong. A little tentative and sputtering at first, by the end of March it filled the air. Broadcast from aerials and hedge tops, a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles brought life to gardens and echoed off housefronts and shuttered shops with no traffic noise to smother it.
Charles Darwin suggested that birds are moved by emotions and may sing from “mere happiness”
Some bird calls are present all year around, and these are among the easiest to recognise. Everyone knows the crow’s harsh croak, and the oily yelp of gulls. But with the spring came other songs that were harder to place. As lockdown continued into April, it became clear that thousands of people across the British Isles and beyond were becoming enchanted by birdsong. Beautiful and lilting, or monotone and irritating, we recorded the sounds of thrushes, tits and finches on our phones, and asked one another about them or simply shushed family members and called them over to listen.
The pandemic had struck the northern hemisphere at just that moment in the natural calendar when birdsong resumes in full force after the quiet and solitary winter months. Millions of people were not just hearing but actively listening, perhaps for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs, perhaps unchanged from the stone age.
I started watching birds when I was seven. My parents encouraged it and soon became enthusiasts in their own right. This was in Birmingham, which you mightn’t think an ideal place for birdwatching, but we lived a half-hour’s walk from a nature reserve, and I’d go down there most weekends or after school, with my father or, increasingly, on my own. By my early teens I could identify most British birds by sight and sound, my knowledge growing as we came across different species on trips to the countryside and coast. It probably peaked around the age of 18, but the interest never disappeared altogether. Then suddenly, last spring, out of work and with a bit of time to look and listen, I felt my curiosity about birds reawaken.
In lockdown, on solitary walks, I started paying attention. The trees are renewed, and improbably beautiful. At the bottom of the road a copper beech shelters our local mob of vigilante jackdaws. They’re not bothered by me but tilt their shoehorn heads and make a soft cacophony of caws and sneezes when a raven passes high above.
Over the past 100 years or so, researchers have started to investigate what these sounds actually mean to the birds. Some calls are quite obviously intended to warn of predators, while others relate to rituals of courtship and display. And some may be neither: Charles Darwin suggested that birds are moved by emotions and may sing from “mere happiness”.
Recognising the calls and songs of even a few species of birds can enrich one’s understanding of the world by revealing an almost forgotten aspect of the grammar of reality. The calls and responses range across various bandwidths, and some speak to the soul more readily than others. Even in bright June sunshine a robin’s sombre phrase can bring on a reflective mood, and who has not sometimes felt cheered by the daft laughter of park ducks? Some bird calls seem to have the power to short-circuit time and take you straight back to childhood.
It’s as though you or I sang melody and harmony at once, drawing from a nearly limitless number of notes
Above all the other birdsongs of March, the blackbird’s rises unmistakable – strident and clear. In the sombre spring of last year, when the usual noise of people and cars was absent, the song, transmitted from aerials, trellises and lamp-posts, felt loud and life-affirming, compelling in its variety and the emotion it seems to contain.
While each bird species possesses its own distinctive calls and songs, in the blackbird the variety of sounds is quite astonishing. From close listening I was able to categorise blackbird songs (as opposed to simpler, more standard calls) into four or five basic types – but then the more I listened, the more I became aware of such internal variation in these songs as to almost make a nonsense of trying to fix them in this way. Indeed, it gradually dawned on me that at least some of the birds I regularly heard from the house, in the park and at the garlic wood nearby had their own individual quirks of speech, just as people do.
I often lingered in the wood at twilight, listening to the birds as, one by one, they ceased to call. The wood pigeons were the first to break off, followed by the nuthatches, the woodpeckers and the dunnocks. By seven o’clock the only songs left were the hesitant phrases of the robin, the sharp, rapid spool of the wren, and three or four blackbirds still going strong. It was only after another hour that the last songbird fell silent. Later, back home, I put my head out of the skylight to listen to the cock blackbird on our terrace exchange songs with two others in the nearby park. The most distant of the park birds is a real virtuoso, and he seems to enjoy the contrast between mellifluous, fruity passages and clownish, off-key notes. I call the children to listen, and for a few moments we’re all quiet, our heads protruding from the roof above the quiet streets, attentive to the song that pours out of three minuscule throats.
Transcribing the calls of birds is a hopeless task. I noticed that they don’t seem to use consonants. Vowels seem better equipped to approximate some bird sounds, but here, too, we can only convey a vague similarity. We shouldn’t be surprised: birds have neither lips, nor teeth, nor vocal cords, and though they do have a larynx it is not for them the “voice box” that it is for us. Instead, birds have an organ called a syrinx, named after the nymph of Greek mythology who was transformed into reeds from which the first panpipes were made.
All the species that we call songbirds have their syrinx between the windpipe and the tubes – or bronchi – that lead to the lungs, and are able to produce sound with air drawn from either the left or right lung, or both at once. It’s the ability to switch at great speed between different bronchi that allows for the astonishing sophistication of birdsong. Different notes, pitches and tones can be emitted from each bronchus. Some birds, such as the song thrush, can even overlay a set of notes produced from one side of the syrinx on to a different, lower-pitched set emitted by the other side. It is as though you or I sang melody and harmony at once, drawing from a nearly limitless number of notes, at a rate of up to 40 notes per second. There’s a robin at the end of our street, a streetlamp crooner who only really gets going at dusk. When I first began listening to him I could only distinguish three or four phrases that seemed to be repeated, often in the same sequence, over and over again. Two weeks later, I’d lost…