The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

April 24, 2009


Filed under: biographical — Tags: — Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:20 am

Many people love to hear skylarks singing. Lee Cole from Ruislip writes:

I love to be out in the countryside and hear less familiar birds or even new birdsong and try and spot the owner. But the most amazing call of all has to be the skylark. To be walking a bleak moor or coastal path and to hear such an incredibly complex call. It’s almost as though it has to sing every known note in head in as short a time as possible before it falls from the sky.

From Maggie Lewis in Marlborough:

Growing up in suburban Essex one of the things I remember is hearing skylarks, I can’t remember where, but the area around my parents’ house was much less built up than it is now so it’s possible I heard them in the back garden. I would always try to pick out the tiny dot high in the sky – can’t do it now though. I still love to hear their song.

Alana Michael from Malvern writes:

There’s a particular place high up on the hills in mid Wales which I have loved for along time, and I associate it with skylarks. I have often heard skylarks there, and for me their song is one of the very best sounds, for the association with freedom, summer, and wild open countryside. I was there once with my mother, and when she died in 2004 I choose “Skylark” by Hoagie Carmichael, played by Stephan Grapelli and Yehudi Menuin, as the music that the funeral service ended with. This is not only a beautiful piece of music, but I wanted to suggest that her spirit was now free to soar after a long illness. It was exactly right for the occasion, and in my mind I now associate skylarks with the memory of my mother.

A correspondent from Turriff:

When I was at secondary school I had to catch the bus at the end of our farm road, which in the summer had fields of oats or barley on either side. And on those bright summer mornings, more often than not me and my brothers would hear the rising and falling twittering of skylarks, and see them fluttering above the crops. It’s such a happy sound, and unlike any other bird song I’ve heard, it was a great way to start the day. Skylarks always remind me of standing waiting for the school bus on a sunny morning, in my t-shirt with my rucksack on my back.

From Lynda Read in Sandwich:

Skylark: Reminds me of balmy summer evenings when I used to rush home from work, change clothes to join my twin sons on the golf course. They were both caddies at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Sandwich in Kent. They had “artisan” passes so that when members of the club had finished, they could play on the course. It is a links course (sand dunes by the sea shore) and skylarks were always there singing in the background. Sometimes we might disturb them if a stray ball went into the rough and we would see a brown bird take off. More often than not though we could not see the birds only hear them singing high above us. You might see a dot in the sky that may or may not have been the source of this amazing sound. It seemed multi-directional, just coming out of the sky. Absolute magic.

From Marian Reid in Boness:

When I was a child I hoidayed at my great-uncle’s in Portgordon, by Buckie in Morayshire. He had a very peaceful house by the sea. One of my abiding memories of this time was lying on the grass outside the house under the wonderful hazy blue skies with the sound of skylarks singing high overhead and feeling my heart soar with their call. I never ever could see any of them though, no matter how hard I looked. Today I live at the edge of town in Boness with lots of fields close by. I hear the skylarks in summer and always remember those happy days and feel my heart free again.

April 23, 2009

Some thoughts on connecting with bird song

Filed under: biographical — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:36 pm

Here are some thoughts from a correspondent in Wales:

I would describe myself as a ‘birder’ in that I go out regularly to look for birds and like to identify the birds I see (by sound and sight). However, there is also an emotional element to it. Bird song is a wonderful way to connect directly and easily with nature. Listening for birds is a form of meditation, in that it directs attention away from all the other clutter that fills our lives, and fully immerses me in the nature around me.

Some birdsong in particular does evoke emotion, particularly the robin. From about mid-august the song becomes melancholic, and somehow reminds me of the coming winter, and makes me feel slightly melancholic too! In January/ Feb, an increase in the amount of birdsong is uplifting, as it reminds me of the coming spring. The birds themselves all sound cheery and happy about the changing seasons, and I do too.

I have a musical ear, and my automatic response when identifying a bird song is to listen for a unique tune in the song. This makes it very difficult to identify birds which do a continuous mixture of notes with no obvious (to me) tune e.g. blackcap, reed warbler, sedge warbler, whereas I can ‘sing’ along with a great tit or blackbird.

And some from Canada:

Birdsong re-connects me to the natural world I sometimes forget I am a part of. As well as providing a natural guide to the time of day, the sound itself can be spiritually rewarding. I grew up an avid birdwatcher as a kid and have always been fascinated by birds. I often find myself stopping what I’m doing for a few moments in private on the way out of the house or in the street, close my eyes for a moment and feel like I’m actually taking part in the morning (or evening) as an actual event. I can feel totally connected to the world via the sounds/songs of birds. Songs/ calls of eagles/ hawks in particular have a very spiritual aspect and can make the hairs on my neck stand up in a second – a reccuring dream I sometimes have is of a lone hawk high above me circling and calling. I remember being at university and every morning it was like somebody ‘switched the birds on’ outside, like it was through a huge speaker next to my window – it was a bizarre experience. Birdsong is the unheard sountrack of our lives.

And from Sweden:

There is something truly magical about bird song. No matter how stressed or tired I feel, upon hearing birds singing, I always feel uplifted and less anxious. It’s like having a reality check, like nature is saying to you that it’s ok – the world keeps spinning and mother nature remains a constant in a world of fast-paced change.
I always try to spot the singer in it’s tree and I am astonished at the power of such a small creature – the power to sing and the power to move and calm my senses. I know it’s a cliche’ but bird song really makes me remember what I am – just a fellow species on this planet. And it makes me feel safe and connected to nature.

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.

April 15, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:54 pm

Blackbirds are singing a lot in Britain now, and they seem to sound especially good on a warm, still evening. Caroline Brown from Bedford writes:

When I was in my first year of university I lived in student halls next to a building site. The builders worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, and for the majority of that time all I could hear in my room was machinery. But in the middle of the night when I was lying in bed I used to leave my window open to listen to the sound of the blackbirds singing. It seemed like they were as joyful as me to appreciate the all-too-brief peace, and reminded me of childhood summers spent playing cricket until it was too dark to see the ball. I can honestly say that few sounds will ever make me feel so utterly content.

From a respondent in London:

I am lucky enough to live overlooking Bunhill Fields in The City of London. William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan were buried there. A virtuoso blackbird – Murphy – inhabits Bunhill Fields and has entertained my family and neighbours for several years. He and Mrs Murphy are imprinted on our block of flats, usually trying to nest in one or other of the balconies, on top of a security camera, and last year on a pipe in our basement garage. Murphy’s singing is so gloriously over the top that you sometimes have to laugh from the sheer exuberance of it. Also, Murphy’s territory includes a primary school, and I think he may have picked up some intonations from the children. Murphy is a “shared value” linking a pretty sophisticated but loose-knit group of people together.

From Elizabeth Soulie:

In May 1999, my sister and I were at my mother’s bedside in Somerset. She was dying, peacefully, after many frustrating years of immobilisation following a series of strokes. During the week before her death, we were sharing a bedroom in a nearby bed and breakfast. She died one morning at 4am when we were sleeping. At the same time, we were woken by the clear, loud, full-throated song of a blackbird, even though it was still dark. We both wondered why it was singing in the night and listened to it for some time.

When we were informed of my mother’s death a little later that morning, I immediately thought that it was as if she had come to sing her great happiness at being free from her handicap at last and it was a very comforting thought. Since then the dawn or dusk song of the blackbird has always brought back memories of my mother. It is the most musical and soul-lifting sound.

A belated update

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:23 am

The blog has been very quiet for a long time now, but this is more a reflection of how much has been happening with the project than how little. After a terrific time at REGUA in southeast Brazil, I was fortunate enough to visit New Zealand for the Association of Social Anthropologists’ conference in December. I’d received quite a lot of interesting contributions to the project from New Zealand, so it was great to be able to listen to birds there myself. The fascinating, and sometimes tragic, thing about New Zealand is how the birdlife closely reflects the country’s human history, both in terms of what you hear and what you don’t hear. Last week I headed to this year’s ASA conference in Bristol, where I gave a paper about interactions between people and birds through sound and convened a wonderful panel on imitation together with my colleague Petra Kalshoven.

In a bid to keep the blog going, I thought I would regularly post some of the many hundreds of contributions to the project that I’ve been sent. I don’t intend to comment too much on these but instead hope that they speak for themselves. Contributions to the project are still very much welcomed.

The University of Aberdeen