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In the Bird-Call Business, Just Who-Who Are You?

An enchanting item appeared in The [London] Times the other day. A story about bird song and girl talk.

It confirmed my persistent suspicion that the song of birds is a baffling business. Even for experts, whatever they claim.

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To distinguish the strains of a nightingale from those of, say, a lark, can be a disputatious matter. Take Romeo and Juliet, for instance:


Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day./ It was the nightingale, and not the lark,/ That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;/ Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree./ Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.


It was the lark, the herald of the morn,/ No nightingale...."

Clearly, Romeo saw a potential tiff looming, so he switched to the subject of sunrise "tiptoe on the misty mountain tops." From little differences cosmic rifts do sometimes grow; there's nothing as disruptive as someone who won't change her opinion even when she's wrong.

To me - I readily admit it - apart from cuckoos and curlews, one bird song sounds like another. I like to believe I am listening to the voice Keats describes in his "Ode to a Nightingale" as singing "of summer in full-throated ease," but, for all I know, it is a common blackbird.

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My bird book has a section on "The Sound of Birds." But honestly, it isn't much help. For the blackbird's song it says: "A rich, sweet succession of whistling phrases with piping notes."

Certainly these words are different from those for the chaffinch: "A rollicking cadence, ending with a flourish." Or for the wren: "A rapid succession of penetrating and jubilant trills." But try taking this book outdoors and see if any of these impressive verbalisms actually help.

It is for the nightingale that the book waxes most wordy: "Rich, varied and rapid succession of liquid phrases, with jarring 'croak' notes interspersed; loud 'chooc-chooc-chooc-chooc' notes give way to slow crescendo of repeated 'pioo' sounds."

Of course, nightingales like singing after dark, so you can't sight them as well as hear them. Added to this is the fact that in urban places birds that are normally vocal in daylight are often confused by street lights and sing with gaudy abandon on a winter's night.

One New Year (and in Britain we call it "New Year," not "New Year's") a bird of such metropolitan perplexity took up jubilant residence in an almond tree near our gate and heralded the incoming 12 months lavishly. My wife's aunt, after seeing in the New Year, was leaving for home. She hesitated in the drive, not believing her ears. We told her we had rigged up a loudspeaker in the tree and that the bird was piped out there from our CD player specially for her. It wasn't true. The bird was real. But I'm afraid we have never let my wife's aunt forget it.

In fact, the blackbirds 'round here make a habit of dead-of-night carolling, and I would challenge anyone to prove that a nightingale sounds more ecstatic.

There are some bird songs that even humans can imitate with passable success, obvious types like cuckoos, owls, and pigeons - though, if one listens very carefully, the "uh-oo" of the cuckoo is just as often an "uh" without an "ooh," or an "ooh" without an "uh" - and so one should be able to tell the genuine article from the less-subtle attempts of small boys trying to fool you that spring has come early.

Green woodpeckers, I am informed by a dog-walking lady in the park who is proud of her bird-lore, have a song like a croak, though I have never heard it. I do, however, hear the machine-gun-fire of their beaks percussing on dead trees, and that is a reliable sign of spring. I have a theory that these welcome rat-a-tat-tats are a sort of singing - a mating call perhaps? - since they sometimes answer each other distantly through the woods, like tribal drumbeat messages.

BUT I don't know. Certainty it's not something I connect with bird sounds - and The Times story underlines my point.

There is this man living in Devon, a computer-programmer called Neil Simmons, a keen bird-buff. Night after night he went down to the end of his garden to hoot, hoping for a response from an owl. His persistence - and the convincing nature of his hooting - at last brought him the thrill of a reciprocal hoot in the dark. From then on, for a year, he kept a log of his nightly owl confabs under the stars.

But now the wild conversations have stopped.

Neil's wife, Kim, was chatting one day with her neighbor, Wendy Cornes. Wendy and her husband, Fred, had moved in next door a year before. Kim mentioned Neil's nocturnal hooting sessions.

Wendy (as the Times reports it) "said, 'That's funny - that's just what Fred has been doing!"

Presumably there is a real owl nearby chuckling in its tree hole. Very quietly.

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