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The Magic of Birdsong


The Magic of Birdsong: A fine fresh morning - the sun streaming through the bedroom window - slightly open, the red and white gingham curtains moving gently in the morning air - dust motes caught for a moment - faerie dust, shining like tiny golden stars; the incessant chatter of House Sparrow and the garbled chuckling, whistling and mimicry of Starling from the cottage eaves and chimney pots; Green Woodpecker laughing from the nearby Ash; And Cuckoo calling from the copse across the fields - a Messiaen symphony. The scent of early spring - apple blossom and garden flowers in the warming sun. A heady romance. A childhood memory as real now as it was then - For this moment at least I am transported - there in the trees and fields around - what is that if not magic ... the magic of birdsong.

Magic is a feeling. Magic is believing. Magic is being able to open your mind and absorb the wonders of Nature - seen and not seen, in the everyday. Magic is a quality - transcendent - that makes something seem removed from everyday life, ethereal, especially in a way that gives delight. Magic is in the beauty of the moment when time stops and you are at one with nature ... which is within you without you.

"The bird upon the tree utters the meaning of the wind—a voice of the grass and wild-flower, words of the green leaf; they speak through that slender tone. Sweet­ness of dew and rifts of sunshine, the dark hawthorn touched with breadths of open bud, the odour of the air, the colour of the daffodil—all that is de­licious and beloved of springtime are expressed in his song. Genius is nature and his lay, like the sap in the bough from which he sings, rises without thought". —’Hours of Spring’ - ‘Field and Hedgerow’: Richard Jefferies

Beatific in its own right birdsong can also be a part of life, and not just a background to it especially in contemplative moments; sometimes catching us unawares; A Mistle Thrush singing his heart out from the Churchyard Yew - the piper at the gates of dawn; black Swift screaming jet-like across a cloudless blue sky, the afterburn of their passing an echo in the still air; Snipe drumming over the water meadows of a winding river valley; the transcendent song of the Woodlark - more beautiful and harmonic to my mind than the Skylark - on the hillside of a wooded valley; the echoing voice-throwing call of the Cuckoo - from across the fields; the silvery descant of the first Willow Warbler - ‘one of the purest sounds in all bird music’ (Peter Adams - Character in Birdsong 1952-53) - and the joyful vibrant trilling tremolo of the Wood Warbler - in an early spring beechwood; and the ever present song of Yellowhammer, singing when all others have ceased - the hayfield in the early evening. Serendipitous moments.

Many years ago the great Naturalist, W.H.Hudson wrote:

‘...  all natural sounds, especially bird sounds, produce an unusual effect owing to some special circumstances or to a conjunction of favourable circumstances ...  It is pure chance ; the effect of to-day will never be repeated ; it has gone for ever ... .’ [But remains in memory].

‘... One evening, walking in a park near Oxford, I stopped to admire a hawthorn tree covered with its fresh bloom. On a twig on the thorn a female chaffinch was perched, silent and motionless, when presently from the top of an elm tree close by its mate flew down, describing a pretty wavering curve in its descent, and arriving at the bush, and still flying, circling round it, he emitted his song ; not the usual loud impetuous song he utters when perched ; in form, or shape only it was the same, the notes issuing in the same order, but lower, infinitely sweeter, tender, etherealised.The song ended as the bird dropped lightly by the side of its little mate. I could hardly credit my own senses, so beautiful ...’

‘... On another occasion I was walking across a furze- grown common after dark on a very cold windy evening in early April when at a distance of about forty yards from me a whinchat warbled the fullest, sweetest song I ever listened to from that bird. After a brief interval the song was repeated, then once again. Whether it was the exceeding purity of the sound, so clear, so wondrously sweet, so unexpected at that hour, or the darkness and silence of that solitary place which gave it an almost preternatural beauty I cannot say, but the effect on me was so great that I have never walked by night in spring in any furzy place without pausing and listening from time to time with the pleased expectation of hearing it again ... .’

The Music of birds  - Adventures Among Birds W H Hudson

And here are some excerpts on aspects of birdsong from other writers, where the song of a bird has had a profound, sometimes life affirming or life changing effect...

‘... their [Oaks] topmost branches are house to a parliament of Rooks, harshly discussing their airs and graces from up high. Closer, the resident House Sparrows chit, chip and chatter, like the Friday-night hubbub of a packed local. The Dunnock jangles again and the glinting gadgetry of a pair of Goldfinches mechanises overhead ... I stop, breathe and listen – and it truly is all that matters, just for a moment.’ Joe Harkness - Bird Therapy - Sing a Song of Springtime

Bird Therapy began as a blog, in which Joe explores the therapeutic benefits of birdwatching for people experiencing difficulties with their mental health. It is now a book (published through Unbound on 13th June 2019).

And here is another by Helen White writing of her recent experience of a Robin singing at Glastonbury ... 

‘... he [the Robin] just sang and sang. I could see every barb of every overlapping cross-hatched feather, the vibration in his throat, ... ; [I] was able to notice how all the power of that sweetly-intricate sound came from deep in the throat and the bellows of his iron-red chest. Then I went almost weak-kneed as a sudden burst of sunshine lit up a patch of light, just around him, on his shady tree until he glowed in a circle of other-worldly technicolor ... and time felt, as it were, suspended, ...’

Helen is a professional artist mainly working in oils, more recently with digital media. Light is a particular theme. She has other blogs where she writes about health and healing and life experiences.

She writes: ‘ ... An overarching desire is to be of service through the sharing of these experiences; to shine a light for others in case what I offer or play-around with might be of help in their own unique journey. Writing about my experiences is something I do for love and I spend a great deal of my time doing it, purely for that thing – love. ...’

Bird song has inspired many poets and musicians. Above all, the song of birds ... the setting, performance, variety, and musical quality, awakens in us something from way before long ago ... 

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form, that lends itself to nature writing particularly well. A haiku uses just a few words to capture a moment and create a picture in the reader's mind. It is like a tiny window into a scene much larger than itself.

 distant bells
over misty meadows -
a lark rises

red skies -
from wind-tossed trees
stormcock sing

twittering goldfinch
paint the evening sky -
the old piano plays

Adapted from my poem Lying Lazy in a Meadow by a Stream.

And who can fail to be moved by Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1914 The Lark Ascending, which begins with "A silvery solo violin line flutters and darts, reaching up ever higher above the orchestra's hushed, held chord. There's no other opening quite like it for instant atmosphere".

Less well known is George Meredith's poem, of the same name, that inspired it. The composer even copied its lines describing the bird's "silver chain of sound" on the fly-leaf of his score. George Meredith pictures the skylark’s song as a jet of water soaring ‘With fountain ardor, fountain play’, this carefree—spilling—overflow as if the bird’s song in its pure liquidity dissolves all the dry distinctions of joy and light, the listener and the singer, in an aural alchemy.

As up he wings the spiral stair, 
A song of light, and pierces air 
With fountain ardor, fountain play, 
To reach the shining tops of day, 
And drink in everything discern’d 
An ecstasy to music turn’d ...  

Another poet - John Clare - arguably the greatest nature poet, knew the sound of the Countryside and bird songs well. 

‘... Sound may have been one of the most important and original aspects of Clare’s use of language. He didn’t just want his reader to see the countryside as he saw it, but he wanted them to hear it with their own ears ... .’ Stephen Moss writing about the rural poet John Clare  1830s.

Read his poem “Summer Evening" out loud or get someone else to read it for you, and just listen.

The sinken sun is takin leave
& sweetly gilds the edge of eve
While purple clouds of deepening dye
Huddling hang the western skye
Crows crowd quaking oever head
Hastening to the woods to bed
Cooing sits the lonly dove
Calling home her abscent love
Kirchip Kirchip mong the wheat
Partridge distant partridge greet
Beckening call to those that roam
Guiding the squandering covey home
Swallows check their rambling flight
& twittering on the chimney light 

Carrie Akroyd long a devotee of Clare’s work says: “John Clare is such a visual poet. He wrote outside, his eyes wide open to everything, and wrote inside with visual memory”. His rural epiphany ... . 

Later the setting sun, bathes  everything in a soft orange glow - so beautiful it hurts: the incessant chatter of House Sparrow and the garbled chuckling, whistling and mimicry of Starling from the cottage eaves and chimney pots - still present - a constant; Wood Pigeon ‘cooing’ from the nearby Ash; And a Tawny Owl ‘hoo-hooing’ from the copse across the fields. The scent of early spring - apple blossom and garden flowers perfume the night air. And when the full moon comes up, it is breathtaking.

The circle’s closed - memories joined; a new dawn tomorrow - the magic of birdsong.

Artist Credit

The featured image is of a Mistle Thrush from an original painting by Eric Ennion. This was one of a series of eighty one paintings, forty eight of which appeared in the Shell Bird Book by James Fisher published in 1966. All eighty one paintings were finally brought together in the book ‘A Life of Birds’ by Eric Ennion edited by Bob Walthew published in 2003 - The Wildlife Art Gallery.

A short biography can be found here

Artists Inspired by Nature – Eric Ennion
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Martin Smith
March 6, 2019 10:25 pm

This is beautiful Clive. I love your poetic and art references- a real inspiration.
I will now definitely go out to my Wood tomorrow morning and enjoy similar with your words behind me.

Andrea Stephenson
March 9, 2019 11:02 am

A beautiful meditation on bird song Clive. I love the way you merge your evocative descriptions with those wonderful quotes. The world would be a sadder place without the sound of birds.

Clare Pooley
Clare Pooley
March 9, 2019 10:34 pm

Thank you for this post, Clive. There is something about the beauty of birdsong that provokes a physical reaction in many of us. I cannot hear the song of the Willow Warbler without experiencing a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes. Sadly, I hardly ever hear it now unless I travel away from home. I read that they are still one of the commonest warblers in the country but are moving ever northwards. We have lost the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, both of which I heard regularly until about 12 years ago. The insects have diminished too, probably caused by the same things as the disappearance of the birds.
I recently read ‘A Sweet, Wild Note – What we hear when the birds sing’; an interesting book on birdsong and what we think they are saying, if anything. Do you know it?

Clare Pooley
Clare Pooley
March 9, 2019 10:51 pm

The book is by Richard Smyth – I apologise for not remembering to add his name!

Clare Pooley
Clare Pooley
March 9, 2019 10:53 pm

The book is by Richard Smyth. I apologise for not adding his name.

Josie Holford
July 17, 2019 11:50 am

One of the signs of spring here – and one of the pleasures – is the arrival of the wood thrush and it’s wonderful flutey calling.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one but their singing accompanies walks on the rail trail and there’s pair I hear close to the house.

October 10, 2019 11:33 am

This is a really wonderful post and mix of info, poetry and healing.