The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

May 15, 2009

Listening to birds in Australia

Filed under: biographical,Perception — Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:01 pm

I’ve been very interested to hear about the experiences of changing bird sounds described by people moving between different parts of the world. Some of the most striking examples have come from people moving between the UK and Australia, countries with very different birds.

This very striking example is from Eugen Beer:

We have been here in Sydney, Australia for just over six months and soon discovered that, to the British ear, the Australian birdsong is really quite disruptive. We have heard of people emigrating BACK to the UK because of the ‘ugly’ birdsong here. In a nutshell I would describe the sub-conscious effect of ‘birdsong’ here as being to raise people’s tension. It is a series of screeches or other worldly sounds. In the UK you wake to the blackbird, sparrow, or if you are lucky – thrush. Gentle, harmonious songs that usher in the day to come. Here the birds literally crash into your consciousness… I honestly believe that if you hooked somebody up and exposed them to British birdsong and then Sydney birdsong you would see the latter send the pulse racing.

Gill Rice writes:

In 1968 I emigrated to Australia (I was 19 at the time). I had been brought up on a farm in Somerset, and there was an old apple orchard outside of my bedroom window. The dawn chorus was so very special to me, that when I arrived in Australia I missed the sound terribly. My mother made a tape of the chorus for me and sent it to me to play so I did not feel so home sick!

A correspondent living in Sydney comments:

I lived in the UK for my first 40 years. I now live in Sydney, Australia. I used to love the sound of English birdsong – particularly blackbirds. I still associate the sound with English Spring and Summer days. It was one of the few things I really missed when I arrived here among the larger squarkier birds of Sydney… Over the last year I have noticed that I now have a growing similar affection for the sound of Australian Magpies. Their warbling song is very distinctive and quite unlike any other bird I’ve heard. To start with it was a curiosity and, having been whacked on the back of the head by an aggressive nesting magpie (and they are BIG), I regarded them with suspicion! But now, after many sunny days spent with a sound track from the magpies I realise that they have virtually supplanted blackbirds in my affections. I now hear more in the song – it *feels* as if the magpies have become more musically inventive; in reality I think I have become more attuned to their music and the variations in their song.

Simon Eassom from Melbourne was also fascinated by Australian birds:

My family moved to Australia from a county village in England 2 years ago. We loved the native birds in our garden in the UK and thought we’d miss them. But, we’re now in a 1.5 acre bush idyll in the suburban fringes of Melbourne and marvel everyday at the bird life. We have almost resident cockatoos, rosellas, lorakeets, galahs, parrots, and kookaburras that come to us from 5.30am for breakfast and stay through to 7.30pm after supper. We spend more on bird feed than we do on our two dogs (including feeding the kookaburra with raw meat which we don’t even grant the dogs). Anyway, I find their vocalisations much more interesting than I ever found birdsong in the UK. The screeching and squarking of the cockatoos is fascinating, as is the call of the kookaburra. I can’t resist imitating them and trying to communicate. I drive my family nuts with my kookaburra recitals. However, and here’s the main point of interest I guess, the birds that fascinate me most are the magpies and butcher birds. They are nasty bullies and can be quite aggressive and vicious towards people. But, they communicate in the most fascinating sounds. They can sound like a fax machine at one moment and on old “trim” phone at another. Yet it’s clear that the changing tones and pitch are a vocabulary. Their song is almost digital in nature. It isn’t a twittering sound or the parrot-family sound of the cockatoos etc. Neither is it a whistle. It’s quite extraordinary. More than any other bird I’ve listened to or observed, the magpies make me feel like wanting to talk to them despite my general disdain for them as visitors to our garden. They are the earliest bird to begin singing in the morning and probably the most loquacious. The young have a very different pitch to the adults and the interactions make it much easier to pick the magpies out from amongst the crowd. In the UK there would be a general cacophony of bird song every morning with it being very difficult to distinguish individual species, yet alone individual birds. Here, that’s all changed and I’ve become an avid bird listener.

Here are some experiences of Australians who have moved to the UK, the first from Adam Schembri in London:

As an Australian living in London, bird song contributes strongly to my sense of place. I have recordings of some Australian birds in my iTunes collection that I listen to sometimes to remind me of home: cockatoos, whipbirds, currawongs and bellbirds are particularly evocative for me. I always say to my partner that I want to retire in a house where I can hear bellbirds. But I also have some British birds that I like in my collection, particularly the blackbird and the stonechat. I love the fact that the blackbird’s call is often in the background in many different parts of the UK, so I associate it strongly with living here, and have gotten quite disoriented in Melbourne in Australia where blackbirds also live.

This particularly evocative contribution is from Lou Horton from Devon:

Birdsong becomes so much a part of the aural environment it becomes nearly invisible – until it changes. I came to the UK as a teenager having grown up in Australia. Two things struck me straight away: both the stars and the birds were wrong. More than anything else, these two things made me feel alien.

Nearly thirty years later I came across Australian birdsong on the internet. A short burst of currawong song brought back an intense feeling of being a child again in Sydney. I could almost smell the air and feel the texture of my primary school uniform. It’s like a trigger to a sense of being, rather than a memory of doing.

May 11, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:47 pm

Here in Aberdeen you’re never far away from a gull and its evocative call.  Here are some thoughts about ‘seagulls’ of one sort or another.

From Sharron in Fife:

Seagulls can be a pain but I love it when there’s a fight between a gull and a crow. I’ve managed to catch this on camera a few times, always first alerted by the racket.

Rebecca Sargent comments:

I love to hear the birds, although the herring gulls (of which there are plenty of in Hastings) can be a bit tiresome sometimes!

Cate Butler writes:

Herring gulls always used to put me in mind of Cornish sea villages but now I live in Bath/Bristol they are very commonplace.

From Bob Woldie in Woking:

I have visited the coast countless times since I was a small boy (I’m 45 now) and, unlike some people, I enjoy the sound of sea gulls. Oddly though, whenever I hear a sea gull I am first reminded of the only occasion when I did not enjoy the sound. That happened about 25 years ago when I was kept awake all night by the incessant cries of the gulls around Looe in Cornwall.

Peter Soar from Cambridge writes:

Earlier this year I went deaf, so birdsong is a memory. First memory – as a boy of 5 or 6 arriving on holiday at Sidmouth, Devon where we spent most of our summer holidays. The sound of the gulls was the first sound of the holiday, after that of the steam engine which hauled our train. Very evocative; I suppose you count gulls’ cries as birdsong.

From David Macefield in Thames Ditton:

The cry of a herring gull also takes me to the seaside. Why is that they never seem to make much sound when inland?

Jack Matthias from Nainamo, British Columbia writes:

The sound of glaucous-winged seagulls resident on the west coast of Canada (in British Columbia) is a sound I grew up with near the shore in Vancouver. Hearing it now brings a peace to my soul, knowing I have finally returned to this part of the world. The sound was particularly associated with travel on the British Columbia ferries in earlier days when garbage was dumped overboard. The gulls, being scavengers, would set up a great hue and cry as they fought over the spoils.

A writer from Exeter comments:

I love the sound of herring gulls. I grew up in a seaside town on the south Devon coast so was used to the sound of hundreds of noisy squawking herring gulls, especially during the summer months when they are nesting and scavenging for food. I moved up north for a good few years far away from the coast and used to get terribly homesick. During my trips back to my home town to visit family, the sound of the herring gulls always struck me and filled me with joy because I new I was back home!

From a writer in Glasgow:

I suspect lots of people may, like me, smell a phantom whiff of seaweed and a memory of a childhood holiday when they hear a gull cry, even if they’re in the heart of the city miles from the shore.

From George McCissock in North Queensferry:

I used to associate the herring gull’s cry with summer holidays, as we always went to the coast for our holidays, and this was before the time that gulls started to forage far inland for food. I remember the glorious feeling of waking to seagulls and realising I really was on holiday, and then my parents grumbling over breakfast about how early the gulls had woken them!

From Lynda Read:

Memories from my childhood of annual holidays in Devon and Cornwall, they seemed so audacious and big. I used to get scared when my mother used to hold up sandwich crusts to the swirling mewing gulls when they used to swoop in and snatch from her outstretched arm. For the last 27 years living in Sandwich, seagulls are now different creatures. They are an intermittent part of the day. Annoying me by waking me up by bickering as they fly down the road just above roof height on their way to the landfill site outside Sandwich at Richborough for breakfast. In nearby towns such as Dover, Deal, Margate etc. gulls are pests and rip open bin bags left out for collection and strew rubbish everywhere and can be very aggressive during nesting time. So they are no longer the romantic, nostalgic reminders of lovely childhood holidays. Occasionally, only occasionally a gull will call and I am taken back to Porthcurno or St Ives.

From Dee Coulson in Ellon:

Bird sounds and songs have been part of my life since a small child. I remember arriving at my Grandma’s seaside Devon town on the train, with the sound of the seagulls mixed with steam trains hissing across the platform on arrival. We had arrived to the sound of the seagulls, smell of steam trains and sea air which I had impatiently anticipated since leaving our home in the suburbs. This is my earliest recollection of how interwoven bird sound can be with experience, emotion and memory. Today when I hear the sound of gulls I still remember the whole experience of being at my Grandmother’s house for summer holidays.

Daniel Eames from Northampton writes:

As a child from Northampton we only used to visit the coast once a year and even though Gulls can often be aggressive pests, they still remind me of fond childhood memories.

And from Gordon Smith in Aberdeen:

A Common Gull, just this moment, cried outside my room window. My instant response to that is clear pictures of massed trawlers at Point Law (Pint La) where I spent school holidays, 1948 to 1952, with my grandfather and uncle who were ships riggers at HE Stroud Trawel Owners, Market Street. Also pictured is the fish market with hundreds of huge halibut and thousands of boxes of fish, and scavenging gulls, in their hundreds if not thousands.

May 8, 2009

Clever birds

Filed under: Research — Tags: — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:01 pm

I’m interested in avian intelligence and how our ideas about it influence how we relate to them.  Yesterday I found this article on the BBC News website on the subject.  In the past scientists thought birds were stupid because they tried to compare their brains to those of mammals.  I wonder if another part of the problem with assessing their intelligence is that this is always measured in relation to human mental capacities.  Maybe if we tried to measure human intelligence in terms of what birds can do, then we might not seem so clever.


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.

The University of Aberdeen