WHEN birds sing people hear what they want to hear. This is true in more ways than one. Nowadays when the dawn chorus is in full swing, most people are on their way to work, listening to whatever is playing through their headphones. Two hundred years ago, John Keats sat under a plum tree in Hampstead, listened to a nightingale and heard the ancients speak. “The sounds of birds tell us back our own tales,” writes Richard Smyth in this entertaining and idiosyncratic new book. For Keats “the nightingale’s song was a constant, a single, unvarying song, a golden thread connecting him with the far-off past.” This diminutive brown bird has been a favourite of poets down the ages — Virgil, Petrarch, Milton and Coleridge to name but a few.
The nightingale is long said to have been Philomela, the daughter of an Athenian king who was attacked and raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus. Before Tereus killed her, the gods turned Philomela into a swallow. The Romans changed the transformation to nightingale, and from then on, its song, no matter how cheerful, and no matter that the female hardly ever sings, has been Philomela’s lament. “So impossibly sad was the nightingale’s song to the ears of these ancient listeners that it came to be believed that the bird pressed its breast up against a thorn when singing, so as to get an additional throb of anguish into her music.”
That is a bird that clearly suffers for its art. In a Sweet, Wild Note, Smyth goes some way to finding out if birdsong is technically music or not. This book is not just about the gap between what the birds sing and what we hear, it is about what birdsong is, and how and why we have tried to capture its sound. In medieval times, to think of birds as musicians was a “logical syllogism. Music is a product of the rational mind; birds do not have rational minds; therefore birds cannot make music.” Over the years this has been put to the test.
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The great experimental composer Olivier Messiaen is “remembered as modern music’s greatest interpreter of birdsong.” He tried to create transcriptions of the songs and calls he heard. His famous Le Réveil des Oiseaux (The Awakening of the Birds) “imitates a dawn chorus of blackcap, nightingale, song thrush, chaffinch, great spotted woodpecker…” But a research study in 2012 found that birds don’t play their music on a human scale. Their musical notes follow a completely different pattern. As Smyth says, birds “won’t stick to scales, won’t sing on cue, can’t read music, and are liable to crap all over the concert hall”. Here is a writer all too aware he is writing in a room full of anoraks. Perhaps that’s why he adopts this jocular, irreverent tone for much of the book. Occasionally one wonders if Smyth is capable of taking anything seriously; his previous books include Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper and a history of Leeds with the pleasant details excluded. His light-hearted style, however, suits his position in the birding hierarchy. He describes himself as a birdwatcher, not a birder, which is a serious birdwatcher, or a twitcher, which is an obsessive birder.
YOU won’t find Smyth in a heady swoon on Hampstead Heath. But you will find him witty and engaging. He has a penchant for thinking of curious and apt descriptions. The turtle dove sounds like a “woolly power drill”; the cuckoo’s song has a “slightly hollow, woodwindish quality, suggestive of someone blowing across the top of a bottle.” A Sweet, Wild Note is often engrossing – if occasionally a little boring (how many people are actually interested in regional variations of the chaffinch song?) — and, at times, really quite enlightening. His insights into how bird song creates landscapes in the mind, for example, make you think twice about how your understanding of place. On the Western Front in World War One the sounds of skylarks and nightingales reminded British soldiers of the calm, green and pleasant countryside of home. It didn’t matter that there was nothing uniquely British about these birds. In the imaginations of the soldiers, they were key markers of a literary pastoral being shattered by the horrors of war. If you want to know the only “quintessentially British birdsong…it’s a trilling, high-pitched twitter that you might hear coming from the canopy of a pine forest in Highland Scotland; it’s the song of the Scottish crossbill, and it’s a song you’ll hear nowhere else in the world.”
If you’ve never heard a crossbill, or wouldn’t be able to identify its song amongst the chatter of the forest, Smyth’s book is a handy aid. But no book on birds could fail to mention the looming threat of a silent spring, or our cruel treatment of birds past and present. Humans have always exploited the natural world, and, to our shame, always will. But the word Smyth uses for our current attitude is “neglect”. We are too busy attending to ourselves to listen to the soundscapes of nature. For the first time in history, humans probably tweet more than birds do. Perhaps that is a reminder that we should neglect Twitter once in a while, and instead, with this light-hearted field guide in-hand, engross ourselves in the not-quite music of the birds.
A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott and Thompson, priced £14.99