The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

May 8, 2009


Filed under: Interpretations — Tags: — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:50 pm

The song of the nightingale is perhaps the most illustrious of any British bird.  Not too many people wrote to me about them, perhaps because they’re rather rare these days, but here are the contributions of some of those who did.  In some cases these might not have been ‘real nightingales’ but maybe that depends on what you think a ‘real nightingale’ is.

Stephen Munnion from London writes:

In the early 90s during the recession I was a struggling musician/designer living in Islington and it was a particularly bleak time for me – not enough to eat and not really a lot to cheer me up. Each night I would go for a long walk around Islington and even in January of 92/93 I could hear nightingale’s singing their beautiful songs. There are not many things on a bleak January night to cheer you up but I always noticed this. I am not a bird freak and I know very little about birds but I knew what the bird was – what other bird sings at night and, at the time, I guess I didn’t know that it was unusual to hear nightingales in January.

Sheila Ferguson from Maidstone writes:

I grew up in terraced housing in London and as a child my vivid memory is of a blackbird singing in the poplar tree next door. I have never forgotten its song. When I moved to Maidstone in Kent I was convinced for many years there were nightingales in the trees near the river until my daughter enlightened me about night-singing robins. A wonderful song and one which I will never fail to recognise now.

A respondent from Germany:

My most amazing experience was listening to a nightingale in Germany at night. I could not believe how beautiful and clear it was.

Richard Wild from Southampton writes:

As a native of Suffolk, my earliest recollection of recognisng bird song is of hearing a nightingale singing in the garden of the country house opposite my parents’ house in East Bergholt, situated between Colchester and Ipswich. I was probably in my early teens, and used to lie awake, listening for its clear song in the still, late evening, before falling into a deep sleep. It is a sound I have not heard since moving away from the area in 1971, and it is a great sadness to me.

A writer from Dudley:

I like birdsong generally, and can manage to recognize a number; some, such as skylark song, associated with holidays or country walks. My parents taught me to identify most birdsong I know. But most memorable was a ‘nightingale experience’. I learned to recognize its song from a sound effect used for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at school in the 1960s. I regretted that I’d never consciously heard the bird ‘live’ – until we went to Venice about 10 years ago. Walking on the island of Torcello, in the middle of the day, I suddenly realized I could hear a nightingale, which surprised me because its singing is associated with darkness. Completely unexpected, completely captivating.

A writer from New Mexico:

Where I live now in Albuquerque, New Mexico I rarely hear any bird song. Without it, everything feels a tad empty, dead, and eeriely quiet at times. I have noticed its lack and silently lamented. When I go home to England, I find the song of birds to be a big part of the homecoming. I love waking up hearing the chirps, chatters, and trills of the birds outside. I can literally feel my shoulders descend and my brain smile. One particular memory is of a bird that sings in a tree right outside of my parents house as dusk falls. The song is beautiful and mesmerising, so lyrical and virtuosic. In my head I have always thought of it as a nightingale but I don’t know if it really is.

From Ann Waddingham in Kent:

Outside our house, on late winter nights, a robin belts out a territorial number under the light of a street lamp – people often mistake them for nightingales but there’s no mistaking the real thing. I was absolutely thrilled to venture into the garden one still, June night and hear in the distance the real McCoy, singing by the river. It was a heart-stopping moment of pure joy. For three consecutive years they visited but sadly I haven’t heard them for three years since.

From Rosy Jones in Epsom:

A few years ago we were walking in a Sussex wood, and decided to have our sandwich lunch in a clearing beside some quite dense scrub. Just for a laugh I suggested to my partner that I’d call up a nightingale, not really thinking anything would happen. Still, I started whistling the repeated whistle call that the birds do in between their amazing song. Imagine our surprise when out of the thicket came the sound of a beautiful nightingale’s song. It continued to entertain us throughout our lunch – delightful!

And from Ruth Arundell in Barcelona:

On a camping holiday near the Pyrenees recently my husband and I had a nightingale singing in a small tree very close to our tent for the whole night. We’d never heard or seen one before, but there are so few birds which sing at night that we followed the sound in order to see and identify it. Later we recorded part of the song on an MP3 device so that we could compare it with recordings on the internet to be sure. As with the blackbirds, hearing the lovely melodious song coming from one small bird in the quiet of the night made me feel very peaceful and somehow privileged, as if it was singing just for us.

April 16, 2009

Crows and rooks

Filed under: Interpretations — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:00 pm

From Giovanna Dunbar, Croyden, England

If I hear crows crowing on a cold and frosty morning then it always reminds me of walking to school, many years ago.

From Jane Baxendale, Warrington, England

My favourite experience of birdsong is of being on holiday in Cornwall, Rose Hill Campsite at Porthtowan, over the last 8 years. The site is surrounded with many old high trees and each night the Rooks would return to their nests, making such a curfuffle (is there such a word?). A few would arrive first, then the body of the flock, then finally a few stragglers. They were very noisy and would flap in and out of the trees, flitting from tree to tree, branch to branch, for about an hour before settling down for the night. I imagined that they were visiting relatives and making plans for the next day. It was a privelege to witness it.

From Richard Wild, Southampton, England

Rooks are the birds I will always associate with my wife’s dislike of mornings. In Essex and Suffolk, when I was a boy, the farmers used to go out in the early mornings and late evenings, when the birds were still roosting, and shoot their shotguns through the bottom of the nests of these birds, in order to keep their number under control. Of course, nowadays, farmers are not allowed to continue this practice, and town Rooks are free to rampage at will. Their early morning call in our oak trees manages to penetrate our double glazing, particularly in Spring, much to my wife’s annoyance.

From James Dignan, Dunedin, New Zealand

I moved from Croughton, Northamptonshire to New Zealand when I was eleven. There were many things I expected to miss when I came to New Zealand – friends, winter Christmases, familiar television programmes, and the like – but one of the most evocative single thing I have missed in the years since is the cawing of crows at twilight. The birds here in New Zealand have their own sounds – even species I know from Britain, like blackbirds, sound different here (a different “accent” or “dialect”, I suppose) – and I’ve no doubt I would miss the trilling of bellbirds and tui and the “peep, peep” of fantails if I were to move back to the UK. But there are no crows here, and the sound of crows still makes me homesick. There’s one particular song – “Senses Working Overtime”, by the band XTC – which ends in the sound of crows cawing. It always remind me of childhood in a south Midlands village in the 1970s.

From Kee Hoo, Forest Hills, New York

During my adolescence, I would regularly watch a local murder of crows that inhabited my parents’ neighborhood and one day, I decided to mimic a crow call of one of them as it sat on a branch above. It looked at me curiously, I remember so I continued the call, and my young nephew joined me in the kawing. Within the space of 5 to 7 minutes, several other crows flew in and perched themselves in the other trees above us and all started in with various kaws, surrounding us. At this point, I felt that it would be a wise decision to move my nephew and I back into the safety of our house, we were beginning to feel a slightly malevolent air coming off the birds. I’m not sure what I was saying but I guess it wasn’t appreciated.

May 7, 2008

Screaming summer

Filed under: Interpretations,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:44 pm

Swifts are back, at least here in Aberdeen. They arrived, rather suddenly as they often do, on Monday and have been gathering and swirling above the city roof tops ever since. If I’m pushed I usually claim that swifts are my favourite birds, although dippers have a strong case too. Part of the reason why I think they’re so wonderful is that incredible screeching noise they make, a sound that seems so redolent of warm summer days. The arrival of swifts is perhaps the bird arrival that I look forward to the most, and come late summer I shall be keenly looking to see how long they stay on for.

Many people wrote to me about swifts and their associations. Andrew from Crowborough said:

I’ve listened to different birds since I was a child. The one I always listen out for is swifts. They don’t make a nice sound but I always associate their arrival with the beginning of summer.

Judith from Huntingdon adds:

Whenever I hear the sound of swifts screaming above during the summer, I am transported back to the garden of the house in which I was brought up in Southport, Lancashire

Melissa from London shares my enthusiasm:

The bird song I love the best is the scream of the swift, because of its associations with summer. I always watch out for them, and this year I heard them before I saw them, on my way in to work one day. It was a heart-lifting moment. In central London you do see them flying overhead, but usually very far up and not very audible. I love going away in summer, to Devon or the Lake District, somewhere where they scream and dive almost around your head. They stay such a short time, the beeping cries of the house martins lingering a bit longer.

And Philip from Preston has similar feelings:

The screaming of parties of swifts swooping down between the house tops is perhaps my favourite bird sound (it’s hardly a song!). Coupled with the spectacle of their flight, it is so exciting it makes me want to yelp with joy! And of course it tells us that spring will soon be summer or indeed that summer is already here (but not for long – the swifts stay for such a short time). May they always return – the thought of summer without them is unbearable.

I think this last quote suggests one of the reasons why swifts are so strongly associated with summer. Their presence so closely coincides with that season, arriving in early May and leaving in early to mid August. Like a typically British summer they’re brief and ephemeral but, with their needle-winged flight and screaming cries, full of effervescent life.

December 19, 2007

Robins and the meaning of bird song

Filed under: Interpretations — Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:58 pm

The theme of bird sounds has reappeared in the Guardian’s Country Diary with Paul Evans’ paean to the song of the robin. There are a couple of aspects to Evans’ piece that particularly struck me. The first is the timeless question of what a bird’s singing means, of what message it might carry. Songs can carry all kinds of meanings for us, and we might speculate, as Evans does, on what they mean to the bird. But perhaps the singing doesn’t really mean anything at all. It doesn’t carry a message but, like any music, gives form to feeling. Perhaps which of these alternatives we prefer might depend on whether we think of bird song as music or language. Secondly, Evans finishes his piece by suggesting that, whatever the song might mean to the robin, it marks a means through which our world and his are drawn together. The music of birds becomes the music of our lives too.

The University of Aberdeen