Birdsong in words

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the butcher-bird sings, but softly


Selected texts responding to birdsong

“By night I have something of the same feeling about cats that I have always, and far more strongly, about birds; that, perfectly formed while men were still brutal, they now represent the continued presence of the past.

Once birds sang and flirted among the leaves while men, more helpless and less accomplished, skulked between the trunks below them. Now they linger in the few trees that men have left standing, or fit themselves into the chinks of the human world, into its church towers, lamp-posts and gutters.

It is quite illogical that this emotion should be concentrated on birds; insects, for example, look, and are, more ancient. Perhaps it is evoked by the singing, whistling and calling that fell into millions of ancestral ears and there left images that we all inherit. The verses of medieval poets are full of birds as though in them these stored memories had risen to the surface.

Once in the spring I stood at the edge of some Norfolk ploughland listening to the mating calls of the plover that were tumbling ecstatically above the fields. The delicious effusions of turtle doves bubbled from a coppice at my back.

It seemed to me that I had my ear to a great spiral shell and that these sounds rose from it. The shell was the vortex of time, and as the birds themselves took shape, species after species, so their distinctive songs were formed within them and had been spiralling up ever since. Now at the very lip of the shell, they reached my present ear.”

Jacquetta Hawks: A Land (1951)


“At liquidas avium voces imitarier ore
ante fuit multo quam levia carmina cantu
concelebrare homines possent aurisque iuvare.”

Imitating with the mouth the fluid voices of birds
came long before
men were able to sing together in melody and please the ear. 

Lucretius (94-55BC): De Rerum Natura


“Those little nimble musicians of the air, that warble forth their curious ditties, with which nature hath furnished them to the shame of art.”
Izaak Walton (1593-1683)


“Many birds which become silent about Midsummer resume their notes again in September; as in the thrush, blackbird, woodlark, willow-wren, etc.; hence August is by much the most mute month, the spring, summer, and autumn through. Are birds induced to sing again because the temperament of autumn resembles that of spring?”

Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne Letter XL


“It certainly was a remarkable provision of Nature to assign to the same species of animal both song and flight; so that those which had to cheer other living things with the voice should be usually aloft; whence it could spread around through a greater space, and reach a greater number of hearers; and so that the air, which is the element destined for sound, should be populous with vocal and musical creatures.”
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837): Elogio Degli Uccelli (trans. James Thomson)


“A very strange thing about some species is that they sing better in one part of the country than another. Birdcatchers say that an Essex Chaffinch can beat one from any other part of the British Isles, and close observers with good musical ears have noticed that this bird’s notes are stronger and longer in some districts than in others. Singing competitions are still held amongst Chaffinch fanciers in the East End of London, and it is difficult to understand how the poor little prisoners have the heart to utter a note in their cramped cages, enfolded within thick handkerchiefs that make the air dark and stifling. German birdcatchers used to think that the blacker the darkness in which a singing Chaffinch was kept the better it sang, and were, sad to relate, guilty of the unspeakable cruelty of destroying the eyesight of their unfortunate little prisoners with red-hot wire.”
Richard (& Cherry) Kearton: Our Bird Friends (1900)


“After the war finished, a first visit to the loch of the five swans discovered the same old five at their game of weed-pulling and chasing too-cheeky widgeon and goldeneye. Their musical ‘tooting’, as in alarm they drew together in consultation, was in blissfully strong contrast to lately heard sounds of war.
… A usual sound on moonlight nights in the Highlands is the tuneful trumpeting of the whoopers on their aerial routes to lochs known to their ancestors, for countless generations, as safe refuges. One little Highland lassie who heard the birds tooting, when out playing in the moonlight, ran in to her parents. ‘Come out! come out!’ she cried. ‘The angels are calling in the sky!'”
Dugald Macintyre: Wild Life in the Highlands (1936)


“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
…. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millenia, which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948): A Sand County Almanac


“I did not know when I wrote it that the ship was coming next day and that this would be the last entry in my Treshnish diary of those last November days: ‘Tonight the starlight is wonderful and the air is very still. Long swells are booming rhythmically out east of us on Sgeiran Mor. One or two seals are crying full and clear, and I know what a nostalgic sound this will be for me now. It will go along with those of the barnacle and grey lag geese – noises that will stir me for the rest of my life and call me back to the islands. Indeed, this music of living things is becoming ever more symphonic in the halls of my mind, and it moves me ever more deeply.'”
Frank Fraser Darling: Island Years (1940)


“I cannot warn the would-be bird fancier enough against under-estimating the shrillness of a bird’s song which, outside, sounds sweet and mellow. When a male blackbird starts singing lustily in a room, the window panes actually vibrate and the cups on the tea-table begin to dance lightly. The songs of the warbler species and of most finches are not too loud for indoors except possibly that of the chaffinch, which may become somewhat irritating by the eternal repetition of its trilling strophe. Altogether birds which possess a single, never varying strophe should be meticulously avoided by nervy people. It is almost inconceivable that there should be people who not only bear with the common quail but indeed keep him specially for his ‘pick-per-wick’. Imagine three pages of this book inscribed solely with these syllables and you have a good imitation of the quail’s song! Charming as it may sound in the open air, in a room it has on me the same effect as a cracked gramaphone record where the needle always gets stuck in the same place.”
Konrad Lorenz: King Solomon’s Ring (1952)


“I sometimes amuse myself by imagining an intelligent visitor from another planet arriving on this earth just before the differentiation of the human stock – say somewhere about one million years ago. If such a visitor had been asked by an all-seeing Creator which group of animals he supposed would the most easily be able to achieve a true language, I feel little doubt that he would have said unhesitatingly, ‘Why, of course, the birds’. And indeed, if we now look at the birds together with all the mammals other than man, we have little hesitation in saying that the birds are by far the more advanced, both in their control of their vocalisation and by the way in which they can adapt them collectively and individually to function as a most powerful communication system.”
W.H.Thorpe: quoted in Bird Sounds and their Meaning (1977)


“It may be natural to make music, but music itself is not natural. (Is ‘bird-song’ music, or our metaphor for music? Do we turn it into song when we listen?)”
Ruth Padel: I’m a man – Sex, Gods and Rock’n’roll (2000)


“Don’t get me wrong: I am not claiming that sound-objects as the soundscape-composer finds and transforms them are music per se. ‘A natural object cannot, as a matter of logic, have syntactical properties, whether it is a bird’s ‘song’ or anything else.’ This is the voice of my favourite music philosopher, Peter Kivvy (from Muisc Alone, Ithaca 1990). ‘However much bird ‘songs’ may sound like music, they cannot be music – unless, of course, we ascribe to birds a mental life comparable to our own, which few of us will want to do.’

So what do I do when I listen to the sounds of the real world and try to find a musical meaning in them? Kivvy knows the answer, it is the ‘as-if’ mode: ‘For to say we hear birdsongs as if they had syntactical properties is not to ascribe syntactical properties to them …’ And this is what distinguishes the steel worker from the soundscape artist and the soundscape listener: the ‘as-if’ mode. Listening to the real world is the act of aestheticism in which we follow Hemingway, for whom we do not deserve to live in this world if we do not perceive it.”
Michael Rusenberg: quoted in David Toop’s Haunted Weather – music, silence and memory (2004)