Is there anything more beautiful than birdsong? From the first trills of the dawn chorus to the solo blackbird singing as dusk falls, it is the most magical thing.
I read recently about some musicians holding concerts in woodland in the hope that a nightingale would join in the music – how magical that would be. Sadly, not many people have ever heard a nightingale as they have declined greatly over the past few years. The RSPB says there are fewer than 5,500 now, down from 60,000 a few decades ago. Isn’t that sad? It is only the male bird that sings and what makes the nightingale unique is that they sing many different notes and appear to respond to music made by humans.
The nightingale is the bird widely regarded as the star performer, but I can think of several others that frequently wow me with their musical skills. Many times up on Dartmoor I have listened to the beautiful trills and twitters of a skylark – only visible as a tiny dot, high up in the sky. A song thrush, again a bird in major decline, is also lovely to sit and listen to, it’s song so varied and clear. The gardener’s friend and surely one of our cheekiest birds, the robin, also has a delightful song and a blackbird’s solo at dusk is the perfect end to a day.
Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds. A bird ‘call’ says something definite about the caller – for example, “I’m a robin and I’m worried about that cat down there”. Bird ‘song’ is a specialised form of bird call that is designed to ensure the breeding success of the singer, to indicate clearly that he is healthy and fit and ready to breed.
And yes, as is so often the way, it’s largely a boy thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled.
Birdsong is most highly developed in a group of birds called ‘passeriformes’ which include wrens, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes. Basically, it means ‘perching bird’ and it’s an enormous group – around 5,400 of the world’s 8,000 to 9,000 species are ‘perching birds’ and all of them sing differently.
Each species has its own signature song. Some are basic, chiff-chaffs just go ‘chiff chaff’, but many are complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the blackbird being possibly the best example. Each song is different. It has to identify the singer’s species and also say something about the health of the singer. Many species even mimic other birds’ songs just to increase their repertoire, and it’s not unknown for other sounds, such as cats’ calls, to be included as well!
Birdsong is an integral part of the soundtrack in our everyday lives (well, for we lucky country dwellers at least) and when the singing stops – it is quite unsettling. I recall when we had an eclipse about 10 years ago and, as we stood outside, marvelling as the light quickly faded as the sun disappeared… the birdsong ceased. I found that silence along with the sudden gloom, very unsettling. A world without birdsong would be a barren place indeed.