For most of us, the songs of birds have an aesthetic appeal. Here are 10 of the best to be heard in Britain.
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”.
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”.
Many assessors would put the woodlark at number one for sheer ringing beauty.
5. Mistle thrush
That a mistle thrush in song can easily be mistaken for a blackbird speaks for itself. 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 Percy Shelley hailed as “blithe spirit”.
The robin sings sad, reflective phrases. Of this bird's song, the 18th-century poet William Cowper wrote: “The redbreast warbles still but is content with slender notes and more than half suppressed”. The robin's song is suppressed, somehow rather “strained” and bitter sweet.
8. Song thrush
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.
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.
10. Marsh warbler
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's what the marsh warbler then does with them that matters: it creates a musical cloth of many colours.