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The language of birds: 7. Human appreciation of birdsong (continued)

The wren's song is cheerful, clear and ebullient. A schoolboy striving to complete his homework is said to have complained of "that shattering wren". For the diminutive size of the bird it is one of the loudest of bird songs, and is also one of the highest-pitched ranging from about one full octave below to one full octave above the highest note on the piano.

The marsh warbler's performance ranks among the most highly developed of all bird songs, being vigorous, long and musical. The bird weaves its aural fabric from strands of other birds' notes, but it is what the marsh warbler then does with them that matters: it creates a musical cloth of many colours.

The garden warbler should perhaps be of higher rank than eleventh, closer to its first cousin the blackcap, for their songs are undoubtedly similar. The garden warbler, however, is more rambling. If, however, "to warble" is "to sing in a gently continuous trilling manner" then that is what the bird does, delightfully.

The hedge sparrow sings a pleasing, cheerful little ditty, seemingly at the top of his voice and a little too hurriedly for our ear. While the hedge sparrow sings only from a perch, the tree pipit also performs a song-flight parachuting down on raised wings and spread tail voicing a stream of glittering notes which build to a crescendo.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) (28K)
Tawny Owl Strix aluco

The willow warbler lisps down the scale. His is not an intricate theme but is one of sweet and gentle simplicity. The cock redstart is capable of creating a rich, pure, satisfying warble. The melody and timbre are simply beautiful, but, as with a number of the faster songs, a redstart tape recording should be played at half speed for added enjoyment. The sedge warbler mixes musical notes with harsher ones, but his song is always lively and interesting, and certainly more so than that of his close relative the reed warbler whose output some people, it has to be admitted, have difficulty in distinguishing.

Though not oscines (true song birds), I unhesitatingly include at 17th and 18th positions the tawny owl and the curlew. Both I would elect as honorary oscines! The tawny owl is a gifted producer of woodwind quality music. The deep purity of its quavering notes, and its superb timing, to say nothing of the evocative quality of the hooting make it a moving and memorable sound.

The curlew's lonesome cry and bubbling song so impressed the author of that delightful book The Charm of Birds. Lord Edward Grey of Falloden (one-time British Foreign Secretary) that he wrote: "Of all bird songs and sounds known to me there is none I would prefer to the spring note of the curlew".

The chaffinch has an attractively distinctive song, characterised by a terminal flourish. The phrase is both crescendo and accelerando.

Twentieth: the great tit. This brightly coloured and diminutive bird is a simple but high spirited melodist. He rings many changes on his diatonic "tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher".

Taking a global view of the musicality of bird song, Charles Hartshorne, whose book Born to Sing makes him the world's leading ornithological aesthete, lists 194 superior singers. Of these 112 rate one star, 60 rate two stars and the 22 in the table below 2 rate three stars.

Top 22 world bird songsters:

1. Superb Lyrebird
Menura novoehollandiae
12. Chorister robin-chat
C. dichroa
2. Prince Albert Lyrebird
M. alberti
13. Ruppell's robin-chat
C. semirufa
3. Woodlark
Lullula arborea
14. Snowy-headed robin-chat
C. niveicapilla
4. Banded Wren
Thryothorus pleurostictus
15. White-rumped shama
Copsychus malabaricus
5. Carolina wren
T. ludovicianus
16. Slate-coloured solitaire
Myadestes unicolor
6. Mockingbird
Mimus polyglottos
17. Hermit thrush
Catharus guttatus
7. Chalk-browed mockingbird
M. saturninus
18. Wood thrush
Hylocichla mustelina
8. White-banded mockingbird
M. Triurus
19. Blackbird
Turdus merula
9. Nightingale
Lusciania megarynchos
20. Orphean Warbler
Sylvia hortensis
10. Thrush Nightingale
L. luscinia
21. Bellbird
Anthornis melanura
11. Heuglin's robin-chat
Cossypha heuglini
22. Tui
Prosthemadera novaeseelandia

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