Caught by the River

Secret Songs of Birds

Roy Wilkinson | 26th November 2011

Ever wanted to hear a curve-billed thrasher at 50 per cent speed? Roy Wilkinson on an intriguing CD of birdsong from the British Library.

The common quail is said to call ‘wet my lips’, seemingly begging for booze, or maybe something else. The snipe’s aerial drumming gives it the nickname The Galloping Horseman Of Lapland. And I’ve heard the chaffinch’s song – rising then abruptly falling off – likened to a bowler on the cricket pitch, gathering pace as they near the crease, then fizzing forth with brutish bouncer or crafty leg-cutter. Our elaborate descriptions of the noises that birds make possibly hints at the particular charge and intrigue these sounds carries. You don’t have to be any kind of naturalist to register the mournful keening of the curlew. The eerie laughing call of the great northern diver – or great northern loon as it’s known in North America – became a Hollywood cliché, presaging unsettling events or leading lakeside lovers to huddle close. As recently as 1997, Nick Cave invoked this particular bird, making it part of the exquisite sadness that washes across his album The Boatman’s Call: ‘The boatman calls from the lake/A lone loon dives upon the water.’

I’m fascinated by birdsong, but I really struggle to remember it, to get to grips with the pretty torrents of sound that chime through the woods and upon the water. One of the pleasures of spring is to head out at dawn with someone who knows their birdsong – someone who can hear a nuthatch half a mile away or take you through the beautiful intricacy of the blackcap’s song. The blackcap is also known as the northern nightingale. Its song has been formally celebrated from at least the early 19th century to our own era – from the John Clare poem The March Nightingale to the Edwyn Collins track It’s A Steal. Clare writes about someone confusing the blackcap’s song with that of the nightingale. I struggle to identify even more common species. I just stepped into the back garden and heard a gorgeous liquid cascade. It was probably a robin, but I had to make visual contact to be sure. In fact there were two robins singing at each other. Birdsong often sounds mercurially pretty to us. But, of course, it carries other messages for the birds.

I was once able to watch an amazingly bracing natural spectacle at close quarters. A pal invited me to take a seat on a coach heading from Kendal in Cumbria to Blackpool Winter Gardens’ Empress Ballroom – for the 1984 North Western Young Farmers’ Christmas Ball. On the way down our young farmers speculated whether, for them, the night would climax with “a fuck or a fight”. Five hours later blood and spunk were exposed to the night air as fights and frottage enlivened the lager-Götterdämmerung that was being enacted across the ballroom’s ancient sprung dancefloor. The robin’s song carries the same eternal pulse – a hello to the girls, a fuck off to the boys; the carnal imperative and potential violence.

Once you start to read about the complexity and physics of birdsong it enters a realm that seems far removed from the familiar robin – even allowing for that bird’s true colours of braggadocio-brimming bad boy of the garden fence. Birds are thought to have a hearing range of around 50Hz to above 20kHz – similar to our own range of about 20Hz to 20KHz. But we don’t seem to know for sure. Are birds, like dogs, hearing things that we can’t? Certainly the must-read paper ‘Infrasound in the capercaillie’, as featured in the Journal of Ornithology in 2005, reported that the capercaillie – Cock Of The Woods, great grouse of the Scottish Highlands – sounds out right at the lower limit of human hearing, letting loose with a kind of avian sub-bass. Research indicates that the brown thrasher, an American bird that looks like a narky song thrush, may have 3,000 different songs. Three thousand? Here is the bird equivalent of the Merzbox box-set from the Japanese musician Merzbow – a man happy to put out a 50-CD collection when the wider world isn’t previously familiar with a single note. It’s surely the further fringes of birdsong enthusiasm that are targeted by a recent CD drawing on the British Library Sound Archive – Secret Songs Of Birds, subtitled The Hidden Beauty Of Birdsong Revealed.

The CD consists of the song of 24 species of birds – at natural speed and then variously slowed down. The intent is to allow the human ear to better apprehend these sonic fusillades. The CD starts with a British wren, singing au natural and then at 30 per cent speed. To be honest it doesn’t particularly help this listener. The blackcap is also on the CD, but, for me, hearing its song at 40 per cent speed just adds a strange alien echo. In places this collection sounds like I Hear A New World, Joe Meek’s “Outer Space Music Fantasy” – the famously out-there LP where Joe gave the listener such extra-terrerestial imaginings as Globb Waterfall and March of the Dribcots, by recording bubbles being blown through straws or backwards-taping a flushing toilet. And, casual bird fan be warned, the Secret Songs CD in unabashed about moving far from birds the UK birdwatcher might be familiar with. Alongside the skylark and goldcrest we have the likes of the Siberian rubythroat, the rufous-tailed scrub robin, the Protea canary, the Pacific winter wren.

Secret Songs Of Birds is a fascinating artefact. But, as with free jazz, it might be wasted on the inexpert listener. The vocal organ of birds is the syrinx, located at the base of the trachea and named after a nymph from Greek mythology. But was it the ancient Greeks that the Canadian prog-metallers of Rush were thinking of with the track The Temples Of Syrinx on their 2112 album? As with the birds, Rush were full of confusing complexities, with frontman Geddy Lee operating at a vocal pitch we may or may not be able to comprehend…

Secret Songs Of Birds in out now on a CD from the British Library

Roy’s book, Do It For Your Mum, can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £13.50