BEFORE I retired from the Mercury newspaper, my colleagues used to joke that they always knew when I’d been on duty by the number of bird stories that appeared in the newspaper.
Writing and looking for bird news, especially when compiling and editing the world pages, was a welcome distraction from all the man-made turmoil and mayhem in the world.
One night on my usual journalistic bird hunt, or bird trawl through the new agency reports coming across the wires, I was disappointed not to find any items on either birds, animals, pets or even the environment in general. There wasn’t even an item on bird flu. Instead there was more killing in the name of the Islamic jihad and, from the other side of the world in theUnited States, a southern Baptist minister burning the Koran. Ironically, he was warning Christian fundamentalists and radicals that Islam was on the march.
Contemplating a raft of bad news, all this animosity, without pleasant distractions, it occurred to me that there was actually one thing the Muslim and Christian fundamentalists agree on — and that is birds and birdsong. Ancient tracts from both religions maintain that birdsong is a manifestation of God.
Through the development and evolution of religion, birdsong has been a constant. Indeed, it predates religion as we know it today — birdsong was there not only during an age of pagan worship, then the rise of civilisation, but at the dawn of Homo sapiens as a species. It’s been with us since mankind evolved, telling humans when to hunt, and later when to sow and reap.
It is little wonder that it is so planted in the human sub-conscious. It’s part of our soul.
As far as the written record is concerned, it was the clerics who first drew attention of the wonders of birdsong. In this regard, I was thumbing through a copy of an 18th century English natural history book the other week, an illustrated version of the Natural History of Selbourne by the Reverend Gilbert White but it was not the pictures of Selbourne village and its famous beech hanger that stirred my memories of the place. It was the call of the English robin that I imaged I could hear amid the pages. Such is the power of birdsong and the power of books.
As most lovers of natural history know — at least inBritain— the book’s author is generally consideredBritain’s first ecologist. I mention Gilbert White because every time I see a British television program on the ABC, or on the commercial channels for that matter, I hear British birdsong, mainly the blackbird and the robin which are common garden birds inBritain. The robin song especially takes me to Selbourne parish church, with an ancient yew tree shading the church’s oak door and the simple grave of Gilbert White tucked away in the churchyard.
I have spent many a time in the churchyard, standing over the grave of Gilbert White, the last occasion being about 10 years ago when I bought the book to which I refer. The countryside around thevillageofSelbourneis not how Gilbert White would recognise it, although his beloved beech hanger, overhanging the village on a steep hill, is still there. Many of the small, patchwork fields and paddocks have given way to industrial agriculture that demand prairie-type fields and once common birds like the yellowhammer and chaffinch or now not so common.
The last time I stood at Gilbert White’s grave I contemplated a world in which Gilbert White existed so different to ours. It was a world without electricity, without the internal combustion engine, even the steam engine. What would he have made of television, the internet and the CD player? At that moment a robin struck up in song, followed by a blackbird and then a song thrush. And it occurred to me that, 200 years on from Gilbert White’s death and a long-lost time, there was a connection between now and then, made possible by birds.
Gilbert White would not have recognised the drone of a jumbo jet overhead, or the distant rumble of a train on a commuter line toWaterloostation inLondon. But the birdsong would have been familiar and, without even opening his eyes, Gilbert White would have been able to tell you what season of the year it was and possibly what time of the day. Birds and bird-song cross time. In a fast-changing human world, birds and birdsong remain a constant, as I have said.
We often associate music with a place and time. It is the same with birdsong.Hobartto me is represented by the call of the yellow wattlebird,Melbournethe tinny, strained song of the magpie lark, and I will forever associateSydneywith the song of the pied currawong. It is the same with foreign cities I have visited or lived in. In coming months, you won’t have to tell me the cricket Test match on the TV, betweenSouth AfricaandAustralia, is being played at the Wanderers inJohannesburg. The call of the hadeda ibis will tell me that. InDurbanit will be the pied crow and inCape Townthe crowned lapwing.
Many birdwatchers have a TV and film checklist of birds spotted or heard. Westerns always feature the swainson’s or the red-tailed hawk but birdsong can also betray location. I was watching a scene from the film Sophie’s Choice some years back, with is supposed to be set in a concentration camp inPoland, and I heard the familiar call of the blue jay from my days of living inNew York. For me, incidentally, the city bird call that most reminds me ofAmericais not a diurnal sound at all, but that of the nighthawk, which I’ve heard during late-night jazz-clubbing sprees fromManhattantoChicago.
Beyond place, the bird song we hear is a constant, insistent reminder that we humans cannot escape our connection with the natural world, although that seems to be the aim of so much human endeavour.
Humans have always had a connection with birds, more so than other wildlife, and this can largely be attributed to birdsong, which so often mirrors that indefinable thing we humans call music.
Whereas insects churr, reptiles and amphibians hiss and croak, and mammals scream and grunt, the bird — or many of them — make tunes that humans can call their own, and some composers often do.
The bird as a motif and symbol, largely of power and fertility, has its place in both ancient and modern culture but birdsong also has been a great influence in music and dance from the earliest of times.
Not all birdsong is sweet to the human ear, of course, and some of the harsher calls and songs raise the question: Are humans correct in ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to birdsong? Indeed, are the noises made by birds “songs’’ in a human sense at all, an art form to convey joy and sorrow, or both.
This subject I will return to later but first some of the bird sounds which, if we talk in human terms, are the equivalent of noise emanating from a ghetto blaster, or a reversing Ford 10-tonne truck, or a lawnmower at six o’clock in the morning.
A striated pardalote drove me mad last summer with its incessant singing in my car port. The pardalote had a tunnel nest in the embankment of a path in the neighbouring property but it chose a perch just under the roof of my carport to proclaim its territory with a monotonous, repetitive song that seemed to go on for hours.
It was with some relief this summer that the pardalote family did not return to their old nest but the enjoyment of the blackbirds’ and silvereyes’ sweet and melodious songs was short-lived. Brush bronzewing pigeons took up station on the forested hill overlooking my home and all summer long I have been subjected to what must be the most unusual, and monotonous, song of any Australian bird. The “song’‘, without exaggeration, sounds like the warning bleeps of a reversing commercial vehicle and it can go on for hours at a time, always there in the background when I am out in the garden, and on hot summer days can even be heard from inside the house if one or two windows are open.
Some bird songs actually sound like man’s machines simply because they are derived from these. I talk here of species that mimic sounds they hear from non-bird sources. Species like the lyrebird are well-known or this, together with, of course, parrots. The reason for mimicry has been the subject of much research and it was at first thought to be a device to aid safety and the defence of territories, in which birds learned the calls of birds of prey which would keep foes away.
There might to a little truth to this but it is now generally believed that birds mimic sounds to increase their own repertoire. The bigger the repertoire of song, sung lustily to demonstrate power and good health, the more likely a male bird will attract a female. A bit like avian karaoke, really, although I have yet to hear “My way’’ added to the repertoire of the lyrebird, the sulphur-crested cockatoo or the even the starling, among mimics.
Despite some intrusive sounds, thankfully none resembling motorbikes and chainsaws, I still keep at least one window open in the upper part our house, because I delight in the birdsongs that cascades into our home during the spring and early summer months when birdsong is at its height.
As an Englishman, I must say I have a bias towards European birdsong, especially that of the thrush family of which my favourite songster, the blackbird, is a member. There are Australian birds that are fine singers like the magpie and butcherbird — with flute-like songs without parallel anywhere else in the world — but I still hold up the blackbird song as how a birdsong should be.
What I am saying, in fact, is the blackbird song is almost a human sound, or how humans make music. It is of perfect pitch each time it is repeated, and the male blackbird sings in phrases; but at the same time maintaining a constant rhythm. It sings as a great opera singer would sing.
The bird reputed to be the greatest singer of all, the “bird of a thousand songs’‘, as the ancient Persians called it, is the nightingale, which just so happens also to be a member of the thrush family, as is the blackbird.
The nightingale might not be an Australian bird but it has a unique connection with not just the people ofAustraliabut modern mankind. The nightingale was the subject of the first live outside radio broadcast, an experiment that paved the way for new applications for the miracle of radio and then television transmissions bringing great art and sport, to say nothing of politics and war, to our living rooms.
In the 1920s, the great British cellist Beatrice Harrison moved to theSurreycountryside and began practising outdoors in spring. Nightingales began to join her in music-making, matching her arpeggios with carefully-timed trills.
After a time they would burst into song every time she started to play and she suggested to the BBC that a performance of cello with nightingales in the garden would be the perfect subject for the first outdoor broadcast in radio history.
Every year the BBC continued to broadcast the nightingale song live from the Surrey countryside but on the last occasion in 1942 the broadcast was abruptly cut short when Allied bombers at the beginning of the “thousand bombers’’ raid on Mannheim in Germany intruded. The BBC was worried that the live broadcast might cause alarm among the British public, and even alert the Germans to the raid.
The nightingale, because of its clear and beautiful song which is heard at night without competition from other birds, has been a major influence on human music and poetry over the millennia.
In religion, too, the song has been given divine spiritual significance with both Muslims and Christians describing it as a song in praise of God. The Muslims of ancientPersiawere particularly impressed with not so much the song of the nightingale, but its rhythms that they perceived to be not too far from the rhythmic prayers in praise of Allah. The Persians described the nightingale as the bird of a thousand songs because it never appeared to repeat itself, but always come up with new names for their god.
Christians also have a special respect for the nightingale. A reader recently sent me a cutting of a “thought for the week’’ from a mainland newspaper which drew attention to Biblical references to “God making birdsong the purest music on earth’‘. The article said the nightingale had a repertoire of 700 songs.
The Reverend Gilbert White also recognised the importance of birdsong not only for its spiritual quality but its aid in bird identification. At a time when naturalists shot birds for study, White preferred to observe them and thus discovered “one’’ green species of old world warbler was in fact three: the wood warbler, the chiffchaff and the willow warbler, all with virtually identical plumage but with diverse songs.
Not everyone, however, gives birdsong spiritual connotations. Some people, dare I saw cynics, maintain that the beautiful songs of birds are merely a means of proclaiming territory and finding a mate, which indeed they are. When the nightingale starts singing in response to human music, as in the BBC cello instance, it might be that the bird is merely trying to “jam’’ the human music, mistaking it for the song of a rival.
It could be that birdsong has no human significance whatsoever, and is merely a coincidence. Humans wish to hear music when a bird sings, when all there is functional sound.
Hearing the blackbirds singing in my garden, often to the accompaniment of my beloved blues from the guitar of Eric Clapton, I cannot subscribe to the latter theory. My resident blackbird carries on singing, with obvious joy, long after he has silenced the opposition on the other side of the valley.
It can be fanciful to draw too many connections between humans and birds and avian music, but we are all still bound by the same kinds of cycles — birth, experience and travel, love, mating, and death. I’m sure these stages on the great journey of life sometimes have to be expressed by raw emotion in both birds and humans.
Our delight at hearing a golden whistler singing in the spring — and our compulsion to sing or hum along with it — may be an unconscious recognition that birdsong reveals a profound bond between man and birds.
When I play my Eric Clapton CDs so that they boom from the balcony leading from our lounge over the garden, the blackbirds and honeyeaters and butcherbirds prick up their ears to listen.
The treefrogs and the metallic skinks merely go about their business.