Noticing Birdsong

daffodil by the water

This year a Robin decided to perch in the winter-flowering cherry tree outside our bedroom window and sing each morning (there’s a recording here) for most of January and some of February. I’ve not heard him there the last few mornings. Maybe he’s pulled (to use the correct ornithological term, ahem); or moved to a different spot; or perhaps the other birdsong that has started to populate the mornings now has blurred the bright clean lines of his distinctive and sparkling song? Either way, I both appreciate not being woken up at 5am, and miss the incredibly special sound of the Robin’s song. Waking to the sound was such a reminder of the world outside our house; of the ecosystem of which we are part; of the incredible proximity of other beings who share this place where we live. The start of spring has seen all these beings awakening (squirrels, many types of tits, blackbirds, collared doves, pigeons, seagulls, earthworms, goldfinches…) and I realise that the hardest thing to leave when we move will be the garden and its many dear inhabitants.

On the last couple of weekends, while tidying and sorting things outside, I’ve had an opportunistic and beady-eyes Robin hovering nearby. I like to think this is our songster. He swoops in to take the spiders I startle, or to seize a wriggly worm when I dig out a bit of wayward turf or one of (many) relentless brambles and all day long I hear the silvery echoes of his morning song. Unlike the formal dawn performances – which seem like an oration – the daytime incidental Robin song sounds more like chatter. I wonder if that’s because there are so many other noises during the day and because he is busier – moving about and doing other stuff – whereas in the mornings he is still and silent and seems to have located the perfect resonant perch from which to sing – and only to sing. There is nothing quite like gardening with his company.

Thanks to the Robin, my early spring is now entirely framed by birdsong; the acute period of waking to early morning birdsong has started the year out with Birdsong as a prominent theme and preoccupation. Many years ago a Blackbird used the same perching spot – perhaps a little later in the year – alerting me to the fact that I had no idea about the songs of any birds. Slowly I got to know with certainty that what I could hear was his distinctive fluting song. The song of the Robin is one I learnt later, after I encountered him singing at a bend in the canal near to us, belting out his tunes in the middles of winter. As years have gone on, I’ve learnt to hear the songs of Starlings with their wondrous clickety sounds (have you met Stella?); the mournful whistling peeps of the Oyster-catchers (one of my favourite Shetland sounds); and many other birds and sounds besides.

However, I do struggle to tell apart the different songs of the Common Thrush, the Song Thrush, the Mistle Thrush and the Nightingale. Each of these birds seem to find a lovely high up perch and perform a phenomenal library of elaborate, complex sounds; they are really tricky (to me and my untrained ear) to distinguish from one another.

Today as Mark and I walked around our favourite park, we became aware of a wondrous sound from atop one of the trees. We stopped to listen and couldn’t work out if we were hearing one of the thrushes or a Nightingale. It was very transfixing, though, and we stood for ages watching the tiny little grey brown bird silhouette atop a cedar tree, sharing all his memorised sound sequences. It was amazing.

Last Tuesday, walking back from my friends’ house, I heard an owl hooting in the stand of trees at the end of our road – the distinctive woot woot of a tawny owl, confirming my suspicions that there is one around. I’m so excited to be living in the presence of an owl!

I love these beings with whom we share our little corner of the world. I like putting out mealworms for the Robin and seeds for other kinds of birds (although the squirrels get most of them) and one evening perhaps I’ll hear the owl again. Maybe if I listen more carefully and make a habit of going to the park at the same time – maybe with binoculars and my sound recorder – I’ll learn what kind of bird was singing in the top of the tree this evening.

All of which reminds me of a lovely quote I shared this week with students doing The KNITSONIK System, about birdsong, and introducing the wonderful idea of ‘Granularity of Attention’ – i.e. the level of detail or resolution with which we notice the textures of this world in which we live. It’s from Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which is one of my favourite books ever. It’s rare I read a book many times, but this one is now like a friend I turn to often for its comforting and inspiring ideas about attention. This is the passage I keep thinking about today:

What amazed and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which had been pretty “low-res.” At first , I just noticed birdsong more. Of course it had been there all along, but now that I was paying attention to it, I realised that it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time. And then, one by one, I started learning each song and associating it with a bird, so that now when I walk into the Rose Garden, I inadvertently acknowledge them in my head as though they were people: “Hi raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch…” and so on. The sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to identify them; they register instead like speech.

Yours in learning the individual voices of our friends, the birds.

8 thoughts on “Noticing Birdsong

  1. Oh Felix, thank you for this joyful post! I’m so glad you have been serenaded so beautifully by the Robin, who has begun singing again here too. If I had read this post earlier, I would have recorded the thrushes for you today, since up the road there were Song Thrushes singing everywhere (they repeat their loud, short (two or three note) phrases exactly several times before moving on to the next phrase). Down the road in the woods, it has been the Mistle Thrushes (they start singing earlier in the year, definitely sounding shrill, loud and thrush-like but they go off on a riff, slightly weird and distant, very difficult to hold in your head but instantly recognisable, once you know it.) As for Nightingale, I have no clue, since I never learnt his song growing up and there aren’t any where we live. I’ve only seen one once. In Greece! If you ever manage to record him, I would love to hear and try and learn his song.

    1. The Robin is so great isn’t he with his beady eye and wondrous wintry song. When I was tidying out an old messy bit of the garden I disturbed a massive wolf spider. Completely unbothered by it being almost the same size as himself, the peeping eyes of the Robin immediately spotted the movement and swept in for the kill but the spider was very cunning and got out of the way in the nick of time! Your descriptions of the different thrushes are amazing – I actually do have a nightingale recording from a beautiful singer whom I heard when I was staying in Estonia. I’ll see if I can dig it out for you to hear!

  2. Cornel university have produced a brilliant free app called Merlin Bird ID which you can use to help you identify bird sounds. If it’s can’t, you can also login into your account from a desktop and upload an unknown bird call to the site for an expert to identify. Overtime it’s helped me identify different birds without it, as I have learnt to recognise them.

    I uploaded an unknown bird of prey sounds I kept hearing late at night, and was informed it was a hungry teenage owl asking for snacks and parents replying telling to find it’s own food!

    1. Wow that’s amazing – thank you so much! The one I have from Cornell University is called BirdNET – I shall also look for Merlin Bird ID. That’s great to know about being able to send in the recordings – and how wonderful to get such a detailed insight into the bird sounds you were hearing. The teenage owl! What a wonderful thing to have heard but also to now understand, as a sound! Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Thank you for this. It’s not yet spring here in the northland. It’s raining but it will turn to snow overnight, and more snow in the coming week. Though there’s more sunlight. It was lovely to listen to your recording of an unfamiliar robin while reading this piece and even now as I write, to remind me that the spring birds will be back here a lot sooner than spring will be!

    1. Aw I’m glad you liked the Robin song – and yes, they are such a hopeful harbinger of spring. I hope you’ve some nice bright things to help you through these last few weeks of winter.

  4. Hi Felix, the nightingale is a summer visitor and does not sing from high up a tree in a park, it likes undergrowth. So you can rule that one out. You know the black bird, most likely it was a song thrush, loud and often repeating its phrases a few times. Keep listening and looking, good luck!

    1. Dear Annelies, that’s so helpful – thanks a million! I actually went back this morning having downloaded an app from Cornell University and sure enough the bird was singing loud and clear in the exact same spot and, like you, the app thought it was definitely a song thrush. I’ll keep walking to the same spot around song time and see if I can learn what defines this special songster’s song! And bring some binoculars so I can check how he looks as well.

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