The Charm of Birds Chapter One Part One

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Adapted by Alison Pryce

Chapter One Part One    Part Two     Part Three    Part Four    Part Five    Part Six    Part Seven

Charm of Birds


Bird life has many aspects, and each aspect has a peculiar attraction for us. The plumage of birds, infinite in diversity and beauty: their ways on land and water, and especially their ways in the air: their residence or migration: their mating, courtship, and care of their young: the eggs, so plain or so variously marked: the nests, so curiously made, differing so much in structure and in place chosen for them: and above all, the song of birds. Some mammals, reptiles, or insects make noises that are peculiar to the mating season, or that seem to express an emotion that is pleasant to them; but the song of birds, the set performance, variety, and musical quality, for instance of a nightingale or a song-thrush or a starling, surpass similar efforts in all other orders of life, excepting only that of mankind.

Let the song of birds, therefore, be considered first.

Most country people know the very common birds by name and by eye; it is remarkable that very few know them by ear. As a boy I was no exception. My earliest recollection of being called to notice the songs of birds is as follows: it must have been when I was nine years old, or less, otherwise I should have been at school and not at home at the time. It was a fine warm day, presumably late in May or early in June, for the trees were in leaf. The air was resounding with the singing of birds: my father was sitting with windows wide open at the writing-table in the library; he called me to him and said, " Do you hear all those little birds singing?" " Yes," I said. " You wouldn't like to kill them, would you? " he asked; and I, somewhat reluctantly, said" No," because I knew this to be the answer expected or even required of me; but feeling in my inner self that if I had a weapon of precision, nothing wild and animate, not even little birds, would be safe. The propensity to sport had shown itself in me already by constant efforts to hit birds with a bow and arrow, a pursuit that had not been forbidden because it was at my age so futile; but perhaps it was this that prompted my father's question. Nevertheless though my father lived a country life and was fond of all sorts of country sport, of farming and of woods and fields, I do not remember that he had any individual knowledge of bird songs. From my father, and from the gardener and the gamekeeper with whom I consorted when I could, I learnt to know the common birds by appearance and by name: or rather, it should be said, some of the common birds, for none of the warblers, not even the ubiquitous willowwarbler, was included in this knowledge. The name "blackcap" was indeed familiar to me, and so was the bird that went by that name among the country people; for in hard weather it was frequently to be seen feeding on a rabbit carcase or some meaty morsel: it was in fact a marsh-tit. No one seemed interested in the songs of birds. My parents or grandparents would perhaps remark, "How well the blackbirds and thrushes are singing," or take some favourable notice of the fact that birds were singing, but it would be quite a general remark, and it is not probable that they knew the distinction between the song of a thrush and that of a blackbird, which they classed together. Thus I arrived at the age of manhood knowing only two songs of individual birds: one was the robin, whose tameness and persistence in singing when there is hardly another song to be heard force everyone to know his voice: the other was "thrushes-and-blackbirds," between which I could not distinguish, and which for the purpose of song represented to me one species. This state of ignorance is recalled not so much for the sake of personal recollection as because it is typical of ordinary country life. No one ever said to me, "I heard the first willow warbler to-day," or, " I wonder how many hundred times that chaffinch has repeated his song this morning"; and I grew up without identifying even such common songs as these.

It is song that is the most pleasing feature of bird life, but it is the last to arouse in most people any keen or intelligent attention. The reason is, no doubt, that birds offer so much that is attractive to sight, and the eye takes precedence of the ear in interesting us.

It will not be easy to give an orderly account of bird songs: perhaps the best method will be to take month by month in order, and thus trace the growth of song through the first half of the year; and to say as each species is named what it is that I have observed or felt about the song.

All birds cease singing for a long or a short time during the moult that follows the breeding season. Some time in the summer, therefore, their song may be said to end: the beginning is when song is resumed, and as some birds are heard again in the late summer or early autumn, I suppose that one of these months should strictly be taken as the first month of renewed song. I shall, however, begin with January, although some of the birds that sing in this month have begun to sing long before January. We are accustomed to the order of the months in the almanac, and any departure gives a feeling of discomfort. Is it not, for instance, an aggravation of the discomfort of income-tax returns that the financial year is made to begin on the 5 th of April instead of on the 1st of January?




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