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The language of birds: 7. Human appreciation of birdsong

For most of us the songs of birds have an aesthetic appeal, and we respond to the most beautiful, as we do to music. A few birds' songs are, in any case, virtually indistinguishable from human instrumental music. I am thinking of the South American rufous-and-white wren Thryothorus rufalbus, whose purity of tones and delightful composition easily excels some human music! Then there is the music of the chanting scrub wren Crateroscelis murina of New Guinea, which, to the uninitiated, might sound like a man playing a woodwind instrument! Both wrens are of course slow singers. To appreciate the music of the slate-coloured solitaire Myadestes unicolor (from the Mexican cloud forests), it is necessary to slow down the song. Frank M. Chapman, the much-travelled ornithologist, has described this bird's as "the most beautiful song of all". The best song is, of course, a matter of subjective judgement, and personal choice.

Purity of tone is perhaps the major factor in judging the musicality of birdsong. Putting it simply, blackbirds and robins produce musical notes, whereas crows and rooks Corvus frugilegus make noises. Then one must assess the tune or melody; the pattern of the sound elements. Birdsongs are not random beakfuls of notes, nor are they mechanically repetitious. The bird arranges them in a pattern, and some compositions are more pleasing than others.

Careful assessment of bird music goes back at least 200 years. Daines Barrington, replying to a letter from Gilbert White of Selborne, gave marks out of 20 for various aspects of a bird's music. The skylark scored for "sprightly notes" 19 points out of 20, for "execution" 18, and another 18 for "compass". But only four out of 20 were awarded for "mellowness of tone". The closely related woodlark, for mellowness, was given 18 out of 20.

If 100 British bird lovers were asked to nominate their top twenty British bird songsters to be assessed on musicality, almost all would include the woodlark. My own selection would be as follows:

1. Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos
Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) (24K)
Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos
2. Black cap Sylvia atricapilla
3. Blackbird Turdus merula
4. Woodlark Lullula arborea
5. Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus
6. Skylark Alauda arvensis
7. Robin Erithacus rubecula
8. Song Thrush Turdus philomelus
9. Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
10. Marsh warbler Acrocephalus palustris
11. Garden warbler Sylvia borin
12. Hedge sparrow Prunella modularis
13. Tree pipit Anthus trivialis
14. Willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus
15. Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus
16. Sedge warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
17. Tawny Owl Strix aluco
18. Curlew Numenius arquata
19. Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs  
20. Great tit Parus major  

Among European song birds, classical tradition assigns first place to the nightingale. And for many of us its rich and vigorous song must make it top of our ornithological pops. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder wrote in Rome: "There is not a pipe or instrument in all the world. ..that can afford more musick than this pretty bird doth out of that little throat". Alfred, Lord Tennyson said simply: "The music of the moon sleeps in the plain eggs of the nightingale".

Listen
Nightingale Erithacus megarhynchos
song, recorded by Richard Ranft, 27 May 1988, Northwood Hill RSPB reserve, Kent, England.

The blackcap, for sheer musical technique, is almost without a rival. Its song is never harsh and the bird is skilful in both technique and modulation of tone. It is one of the more charming and tireless of vocalists.

The blackbird has been called the Beethoven among birds. The cock sings long, beautifully shaped phrases, well-defined in time and tone. The effect is mellow, flute-like and musical. Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote "I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs". As already hinted, many assessors would put the - woodlark at number one for sheer ringing beauty.

That a mistle thrush in song can easily be mistaken for a blackbird speaks for itself. For me, mistle thrush music has a stirring stridency. It is a little harsh but the song is delivered with such spirit it well deserves its place at number five.

For number six "Hark, hark the lark" - the profuse strains of a skylark as it hangs on fluttering wings, the bird that Shelley, as we all know, hailed as "blithe spirit".

The robin sings sad, reflective phrases. Of this bird's song, the eighteenth century poet William Cowper wrote: "The redbreast warbles still but is content with slender notes and more than half suppressed". It is because the robin's song is suppressed, somehow rather "strained", that I always think of it as bitter sweet.

Arresting and brilliant is the song thrush in full voice. As a composer he displays a marked tendency to repeat the same phrase two or three times. He has a large repertoire (around 200 phrases) however, and enunciates his phrases with clarity and vigour.

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