The Charm of Birds Chapter One Part Seven

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Adapted by Alison Pryce

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

Two more birds that are certain January singers even in the North must be mentioned. The first is the starling. His song (for his very musical performance must be given that name) has been heard all through the autumn. When thrushes do not sing it is the most valuable and conspicuous event during the autumn and winter: every evening about sunset a starling, or a little party of them, sits on the top of a bare tree and gives a variety performance; some notes are their own, others are plagiarisms more or less to the original; some are perfect imitations. The note that seems to me to be peculiarly the starlings own is a very clear boyish whistle; with this are all manner of other sounds - poultry noises, the Chatter of sparrows, the cry of a peewit one never knows what is coming next. Some of the notes are very pleasant, even beautiful, and are a delight to hear. The starling cannot attain to the quality of a blackbird, but he can whistle so near to it that more than once in February have I stopped and listened, thinking that I had heard all unawares the first blackbird, till some chatter or chuckling satisfied me that it was only part of the starling's infinite variety. Where curlews breed: the spring notes of the curlew are a very favourite imitation. Nobody but a curlew can make that wonderful sound; but this does not deter the starling from attempting it, and the resemblance of the imitation to the original is sufficient to make us thank him. The starling is like a gramophone among bird songs, and it has chosen some of the best of which to make records.

Last September (I925) one bird was missing from a tame covey of young partridges that I was feeding. From another part of the garden came the call of a partridge so perfect that I went hopefully in search. On one or two other evenings I heard the same call frequently repeated, but there was no living partridge to be found, and it was no doubt the trick of a starling (there were some singing at the time), though I did not catch the bird in the act of deceiving me.

Close to the house at Fallodon, standing single on the lawn, is an old elm tree. It is too large for that part of the garden: it is failing and becoming more unsightly every year, for some of the branches at the top are dead. Yet the tree is spared because those same dead branches that seem to dishonour the tree do in fact gain distinction for it. In September and October, while the tree is still thick with leaves, these bare dead branches at the top are the favourite assembling place of a small party of starlings. There they sit every evening about sunset, and one or more birds discourse. It is worth while to sit and listen to them, not for the interesting variety alone, but also for the beauty of some of the sounds they make.

The dipper or water-ousel shall complete this chapter. He is the most certain January singer, for even the hardest weather does not silence him. When the woods are hushed and white with snow, and the burn is pinched by frost, so that only a narrow dark channel of running water shows between the ice and snow at the side of it, there on some stone in the burn the dipper will stand and sing. It is water rippling over a stony bed that he frequents; the soft luxuriance of a chalk stream has no attraction for him. His song seems part of the sound of the rippling water, from which he is never away. "I hear thee where the waters run" may well be said of the dipper. His song is very sweet and lively; it has no marked beginning or close, but goes on indefinitely. It is as if " beauty born of murmuring sound" had passed into the bird who was giving it back as song to the stream whence it had come. I reckon that there are two pairs of dippers each with its own length of the little burn at Fallodon; and where a burn is narrow and the banks upstanding, one can approach close to the sound and listen with pleasure and with admiration of the birds' hardihood. Of this hardihood I had experience in the first week of a certain memorable March in Sutherland. Blizzard followed blizzard; feet could make but slow progress through the snow; wheels could not travel except where passage had been cut by man through the drifts, on a small section of road, and even this was blocked again by fresh blizzards, that obliterated man's puny efforts. The frost was intense ; the river was frozen from bank to bank, except where the swift current kept some open water at the head of pools. Wild life was helpless: sheep had to be searched for and dug out of snowdrifts: grouse in trouble and despair flew in bewildered packs about the white hillsides. At a little height above the river my friend and I were slowly making our way on foot through the deep snow. From an unfrozen stream below there came up to us the sound of a dipper, singing its full song, undeterred by the conditions that were distressing all other life, unaffected by the cold, undismayed by the desolation. It was another moment when the song of a single bird penetrates to the affections and abides thereafter in the memory.

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