This spring, the world has been a different place for me. I’ll be going about my business, and the voice of a blackbird will detach itself from the acoustic backdrop and pierce my consciousness. Or someone will be talking and I’ll notice that my mind has tuned them out as only so much human white noise and tuned instead into the up-down call of a chiffchaff.
The change is thanks to a decision to learn birdsong, to begin the process of distinguishing one song from another and identify birds with my ears rather than my eyes. I began with a ‘wildlife study day’ run by Kent Wildlife Trust early one May morning – appropriately enough, on the day of the Eurovision Song Contest.
It was a cloudy, rainy day in Tudeley Woods, but everyone turned up and so did the birds: by the end of the morning we’d heard a goldcrest, a woodlark, along with many of Britain’s migrant visitors and most of the common woodland birds.
I continued my vernal project with the help of Simon Barnes’ Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed. If you can get past the book’s didactic tone – perhaps a sign of the demands of contemporary publishing rather than Barnes’ own voice, since he writes very well – this is an excellent entree into the world of avian acoustics. Each brief chaper introduces you to a different bird or aspect of birdsong, blending practical information with a lyrical appreciation of the ‘soundtrack of the earth’.
The podcast linked to the book helps you to move beyond verbal descriptions of birdsong and hear them for yourself. In fact, the web is burgeoning with resources to help the budding birdlistener: I recommend particularly Brett Westwood’s guide to birdsong courtesy of the BBC,and the international birdsound-sharing site xeno-canto.
Why is birdsong so attractive to us? I’m very persuaded by Barnes’ postulation that, in the beginning, there was birdsong. Or, to put it in more historical-scientific terms, as he does: ‘Humans – in any modern and recognisable sense of the term – have been around for 200,000 years. Birds were around as the same time as the dinosaurs.’ As a species, we came into a world that was full of song, and that is why we love it hear it so.
But my new-found state of attunement has a complicated, darker side. I’ve never been one to concentrate on something else when there’s music of any quality playing so now, when there’s a robin singing in the distance, perhaps in a back garden on the other side of the street, I find it difficult to tune out the song and attend to my work. Outside at least, I’m not as good a listener to my friends as I was.
Even radio and television can take on a different quality: apparently, the producers of The Archers pride themselves on using wildtrack with the right kind of birdsong for the season, down to the day. I can now attest that this spring there have been plenty of chiffchaffs in Borsetshire.
But even indoors I know when a flock of long-tailed tits have come to rest in the tree above the birdfeeder, calling to each other in their high see-see-sees. And now, as high summer brings a diminution of birdsong, the world seems a quieter and less beautiful place.